I’m a big fan of Raymond Obstfeld and his book FICTON FIRST AID. Every writer should have this book in their craft library.
One of Obstfeld’s nuggets to milk tension out of a scene is a writerly sleight of hand he calls the suspense pocket. He writes, “[It’s] a little device that creates a misdirected suspense moment within a scene to reveal something else”[p. 47]. In other words, don’t reveal the scene’s payoff immediately. Delay. Feed the reader vital information about other things—characterization, conflicts, etc. The reader, wanting the payoff, painlessly gets what they need while you, the writer, have avoided the dreaded info dump and injected tension into your story.
Here’s an example of a suspense pocket from Eoin Colfer in his latest Artemis Fowl offering, THE ETERNITY CODE.
[Artemis] flipped open the case’s lid, revealing a blue cube the size of a mini-disk player nestled in the blue foam.
Spiro cleaned his spectacles with the tail end of his tie.
“What am I seeing here, kid?’
Artemis placed the shining box on the table.
“The future, Mr. Spiro. Ahead of schedule.”
Jon Spiro leaned in, taking a good look. “Looks like a paperweight to me.”
Arno Blunt snickered, his eyes taunting Butler.
“A demonstration, then,” said Artemis, picking up the metal box. He pressed a button and the gadget purred into life. Sections slid back to reveal speakers and a screen.
“Cute,” muttered Spiro. “I flew three thousand miles for a micro TV?”
Colfer then gives us the payoff and explains what the wondrous gadget really is—fairy technology decades ahead of human technology.
In the hands of a less experienced author, the scene might have read something like this:
“What am I seeing here, kid?
Artemis smiled. “An omni-sensor, a device that can read anything you ask it to….”
Colfer instead extends the scene in a suspense pocket to allow the reader to be as curious about the object as the antagonist. The shaping allows the tension to build while the reader gets vital information about how adults view the criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl, who happens to be 12 years old.
A caution, though. You don’t want this to go on forever. The result is a frustrated reader.
If you’re finding your scenes are lacking dramatic tension, or troubled by info dumps two pages long, try a suspense pocket. You might find your scenes crackling with extra zip, while you’ve avoided long boring passages of extraneous information.