The latest instalment in the On Writing series, which features our authors who are no longer debuts, examines the art of pace and tension. Tom Bale is well on his way to becoming a classic thriller writer. In his signature style, he takes ordinary people, often families, and throws them into extraordinary and terrifying situations -the bestselling All Fall Down is a particularly scary but brilliant one!
On the publication day of his latest nail-biting thriller, Each Little Lie, we wanted to ask the seasoned author just how he keeps the reader on the edge of their seat…
Are you consciously structuring the pace and tension in the first draft of the novel or is this something that you consider more in your editing?
My first drafts tend to be quite messy and unwieldy, but fortunately I love the process of getting stuck into a really intensive rewrite! For me, the twin priorities of the first draft are to get the story down in a coherent way and bring the characters to life. Having said that, I do pay attention to pace and tension from the start, because these components are so fundamental to the success of a thriller. One of the clearest indications that I’m falling short is if I find myself losing interest in a particular scene or a storyline – that means it’s time to back up and change something.
During the editing stage, a lot of work can be done to speed up the pace and increase tension, and this is where some of the famous screenwriting tips come in handy: start each scene as late as possible, cut away anything that doesn’t move the story forward, etc.
Are there particular techniques you use to heighten the tension, or pace? If so, what are they?
If you’re writing thrillers, the essential thing is to create both empathy and suspense. The reader has to fear that something bad is going to happen to someone they care about. To that end, there are various techniques that can be employed. The key is to withhold information, introducing a series of little mysteries or questions and then gradually revealing the answers. It’s a delicate balancing act: release too much information and the tension is lost, but not enough and the reader may become frustrated or bored.
Even if you’re aiming for a breakneck pace, it’s important to have some variety. The slower moments give the reader time to breathe, and these scenes are a great opportunity to build character. Interest can be maintained by introducing new questions, or perhaps a little foreshadowing of what is to come. One of my favourite ways of raising tension is to allow the reader to know something the protagonist doesn’t about the dangers that lie ahead.
What is your signature masterstroke in creating real tension that shocks and grips the reader?
I’m not sure if I have any masterstrokes as such, but I do always try to introduce a few twists or setbacks that come out of nowhere. Even if a novel has been plotted in detail, new ideas tend to pop up during the writing and I’ve learned to trust my instinct and go with them, even if I have no idea how they’ll tie in with the main storyline. It could be an entirely new character, or perhaps an element of someone’s backstory – and it’s a wonderful feeling when I approach the final quarter of the book and suddenly see how the random idea I introduced two hundred pages earlier can dovetail neatly with the climax of the novel. Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way, but any extraneous additions can be removed during the rewrites.
What storytellers do you consider to be the greatest at creating and controlling pace and tension?
There are many writers that I admire in this respect, but I’d say Lee Child is an absolute master. Even during the quieter sections there’s an absolute compulsion to turn the page, and I think a lot of that comes from his prose. The sentences are so perfectly formed, and build on each other with such a compelling rhythm, that it’s almost impossible not to get drawn in: “Just one more line, one more paragraph, one more chapter…” and then you realise you’ve stayed up half the night to finish it.