Thursday, April 20, 2006

HA: Digging Deeper

I’m one of those people who have to learn things the hard way, and some things take a long time to sink in. For years, as a writer, I’ve tried to discern the importance of scene tension in comparison to scene action. It’s always been natural for me to keep the action going in each scene, both to keep myself, and the reader, from getting bored. For the same reason, I’ve tended to throw all kinds of complications into the mix, so the action wouldn’t have a chance to slow.

Recently, when Mel and I took a road trip, we learned an important lesson the easy way for once. Or at least, easier than is typical for us.
On the first leg of our journey, we listened to an audio book of one of our favorite authors. It was good, as this writer’s books always are. The action kept going, and never flagged. By the time we reached our destination, however, I was glad the book had ended. The reader of this novel had a great voice and excellent diction, but the voice tended to soften, at times, to the point that we had to turn up the volume to hear what was being said. During action scenes, the voice grew louder and louder until we had to turn down the volume. It became irritating.

Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t like having to take my hands from the steering wheel to adjust volume, and I’m more sensitive to loud noises than Mel is, so I was the one who usually adjusted volume.

On the way back home, we listened to a different audio book by another favorite author. I couldn’t help noticing that the reader of this book, a professional actor, knew how to modulate his voice perfectly. We never had to adjust the volume.

But I picked up on more than that. Though this second author writes spine-tingling chillers, he uses something besides fast action and constant high drama to draw the tension tight and keep it there. Every word, from the beginning of the story to the final sentence, is crafted to work with every other word to create a mood that makes the reader want to look over her shoulder. Every character is drawn with such depth that the reader finds herself crawling into that character’s skin. The pacing slows at just the right time, clueing us in as we read that something is about to happen that could change the course of the story—and it has become our story, so it’s important to us, so we have to keep reading.

High action is great, like good exercise that works up a sweat and gets our heart to pumping. But after a good session of exercise, I need to slow down. After a tense scene in a book, I need time to enjoy the scenery, dig more deeply into the characters so I will be more inclined to care about them. If I can’t care about the characters in the story, all the action in the world can be boring, and there will be no high drama. For a writer to produce drama, there needs to be tension, and that comes, as I said, from caring.

As a reader I need to slow down and catch a glimpse into a character’s heart to know if he’s worth rooting for—or finishing the book for. I know a few writers who can write a book about characters I don’t like, and still keep me reading. These writers are geniuses. I’m no genius. I can’t work that way.

As a writer, I find I’m constantly trying to force myself to slow down in my story, to dig deeper, to give the readers something to care about, a reason to live in the world I’ve created for just a little longer. I want them to return there again and again, to be eager to pick the book back up and continue the story, and then, when the story is over, to share it with someone else.

I want to be the best I can be. Don’t we all? Try digging a little deeper.

Hannah Alexander is the pen name for Mel and Cheryl Hodde. You can read more about them at


At 10:47 PM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

I so agree with this. I think if I had to choose between a page-turning story with characters I never got to know or care about, or fascinating characters who live a dull life, I'd choose interesting characters in a dull life every time. Of course, the ideal is to have both, but as you say, it's a delicate balance to find that perfect tension. My biggest fear is that I'll write boring characters living a dull life. ; )

At 11:30 PM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Thanks for the great insight! I'm editing my first manuscript now, for what I hope is the final time...I'll keep all of this in the forefront!


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