Sunday, March 26, 2023

Necessary Tension by Annette Dashofy

I’m currently working my way through the opening chapters of a new novel. My process, book to book, is always slightly different. Sometimes I plot in great detail, although the story changes as it progresses. Sometimes I plot ahead a few chapters at a time. I’m rarely a “pantser,” writing with no idea of where I’m going. I’ve tried, but the revision process was so massive I swore “Never again.” 

This time, I’m using Option B. I outlined the first three scenes, wrote like crazy, and then stopped to figure out the next plot point and outlined to it. I like this method. 

At least, I like it for this book. Next one? Goodness only knows. 

I had a realization the other evening as I soaked in the bathtub, which is where I have a lot of my writing ah-ha moments. I’d been writing a transitional scene. I hit the plot point I was writing toward. Instead of ending the chapter and beginning a new one, starting with the next important event the following morning, I was writing all the little tasks Zoe needed to complete following that plot point. She was at work and had to place a phone call to follow up on the decision she’d just made. Plus she needed to check on a friend who’d been in a traffic accident and was being treated in the ER. 

But as I soaked in the tub, I realized—nothing was happening during those tasks. Yes, Zoe needed to make that phone call in order to tackle a predicament she was in. And yes, she needed to check on her friend because she’s Zoe Chambers and that’s what she does. Except the phone call goes smoothly, her request is approved, and the problem is resolved. Her friend is in surgery and the wife doesn’t know much about his condition yet. 

Zoe needed to accomplish these actions. But did I need to fill a page or more to show them happening? 


Those scenes contained no conflict. No tension. I could choose to create a barrier to Zoe getting her way on the phone. Perhaps Zoe had an argument with the accident victim’s wife. Or he flatlined in Zoe’s presence. 

Any of those options, with the injection of necessary tension and conflict, would have made the scene vital and exciting. 

However, both derailed what I have in mind going forward. And neither fit the characters involved. 

Instead, I chose a simple route. I ended the chapter. 

At the beginning of the next one, I spend a single paragraph summarizing Zoe’s actions from the previous evening. She’d made the call and worked out the details. She found her friend’s wife in the waiting room and learned he was still in surgery. A call this morning revealed he’d made it through the night but still wasn’t out of the woods. 

This allowed me to reveal to the reader what she’d accomplished without wasting precious words and pages. I can jump right back into the action. 

Some might argue this constitutes telling rather than showing. My reply is…maybe. Except by sharing this summary in Zoe’s thoughts and internal dialogue, much as any of us might ponder a situation we’re dealing with, I think I’ve avoided the trap of telling. 

Besides, I hate absolutes. Never tell, always show. I don’t buy it. Sometimes it’s better to use one paragraph to tell rather than two pages to show something that lacks tension or conflict. In other words, I don’t want to show the boring stuff! And no tension equals boring.




  1. I agree, Annette, that summarizing, aka telling, is often the most effective way to give the reader information they need to make sense of the story without boring them. Sometimes it needs a paragraph or two; sometimes only a sentence. Both are better than a page of no internal or external conflict.

  2. Great glimpse into your process and how you arrived at the perfect solution. Taking notes 😊

  3. Thanks, Jim.

    I hope it helps, Kait.

  4. Annette, it goes without saying I agree. And you've pointed out the same to me many times. A page of telling is too much. A paragraph to summarize stuff that is necessary but no conflict? I'm okay with that.

  5. Many of my favorite authors move their stories along with brief summaries of essential, but essentially boring, thoughts and events.

  6. Good information, Annette. A brush stroke here and there does wonders where an entire coat of paint can stifle or suffocate a story.

  7. I so agree. I don’t need to see characters’ every move. No writing “rule” is proper 100% of the time (at least, in my opinion).

  8. Liz, exactly.

    Thanks, Margaret.

    KM, it also keeps a novel from becoming a 150,000-word tome when 75,000 words are sufficient.

    Molly, GREAT analogy!

    Lori, so very true.