Testing Tension: The Dot Test

Thursday, May 18, 2017
I’m not a huge true crime fan but I couldn’t pass this one up. Reviews outlined events with everything needed for a fast-paced, exciting read – murder, illicit love, deceit, and the fact that the murderers are walking free among us.

Events had everything you need. The book itself? Meh. Somewhere along the way, the tension evaporated.

The earliest chapters weren’t part of the problem. Using carefully chosen details to create a scene, the author led up to the murder telling us about forbidden love and an impending separation brought about by a move to another continent. If only this one person didn’t stand in the way. A long walk, an isolated hill side and a brick took care of that particular person but when the police were called things didn’t add up. Tension grew as, in an act of betrayal, one young lover implicated the other.

Honestly, I expected my husband to hide the book so that I’d get something done, but then I turned the page. Plop.

Yep. Plop. That’s the sound of carefully constructed tension falling flat on its face. From here the author preceded to give us each main character’s family history for the ten years before the murder took place. Ten years of what this relative or that relative was doing could be exciting but in this particular instance it was not. In one chapter, all that carefully constructed tension melted away. I returned the book without finishing it.

Whether you are writing a murder mystery or piece of true crime nonfiction, you have to carefully build the tension in your story. Fail to do this and your would-be reader will go weed a flower bed or fold laundry. Believe me. I know. To help your reader avoid chores, perform the dot test on an early draft of your story. You can see an example in the graphic above.

Step 1: Take a sheet of paper and draw a horizontal line. Add a dot on the left end of the line and label it 1. This marks the level of tension in the first scene or chapter of your story.

Step 2: Now read the second scene or chapter. Does the tension remain the same? Then make a dot on the line to the right of #1. Label this dot 2. If the tension goes up, the dot should be slightly above the line. If it goes down, below the line.

From Step 3 through the end of manuscript. For each scene place another dot higher, on the same level as, or below the previous dot depending on whether the tension in your story increased, remained the same or decreased.

When you are done you will have a graph of the tension in your manuscript. If all is well, it will closely resemble a story arc graph with a consistent rise but also slight drops whenever your story changes direction.

If it doesn’t look like a story arc graph? Fix that tension! You don’t want a would-be reader to take your book back to the library unfinished.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins June 12th. 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--I've had my students create "excitement graphs" where we plot out the plot to determine where the climax is. Why has it never occurred to me to do it for my own writing?

Thanks for this perfectly-timed post, Sue. Very shortly, I think I will be ready to do this with my WIP.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Sue! I like the idea of the dot test, almost as much as your chosen sound effect: Plop. So perfect. ;) It's interesting that the author put in a bunch of backstory in the middle of the book. I wonder if the author felt obligated to include it since it's a true crime story. The placement is also strange, and reminds me of fiction that starts out with too much backstory and then you move it to a later chapter because an editor told you it shouldn't be in the front! LOL I guess it would be better to disperse it throughout the story or maybe not include it at all.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I should definitely remember to do this more often.

It wasn't even have way through? Maybe 1/10th? I'm so glad I checked it out instead of bought it. I love my library!


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