One bit of wisdom that comes with experience is that in tense scenes you want the pacing to pop. The tricks of the trade for fast tension? Short sentences, short paragraphs, everything short. Boom. Boom. Boom. Pop. Pop. Pop.
In general, I believe that. And yet . . . I've read scenes where the author has dragged the tension out for pages and pages. Almost to the point where it's been painful for me as reader. Nothing fast about that.
This week, I ran across a perfect example of this.
I've been reading the Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey. If you're not familiar with the story, it's a dystopian novel that takes place in a poisoned world. Everyone lives in silos waiting for the day they can reseed the earth. Except only a few select people know this larger history. Most think that this is the world God made for them. It's not a particularly original plot, but as they say, it's all in the execution. And the execution is brilliant.
The point I particularly want to make here comes at the 76% mark. I won't go into extensive detail because I can make my point without it, so in a nutshell, the heroine is under six stories of water in a jury-rigged diving suit. At this point I'm familiar enough with the author's style to know that something bad, something life threatening, will happen. Before it even does, I can feel the tension building inside me. The character isn't particularly claustrophobic, and normally neither am I, but while I'm reading it, I feel claustrophobic with all that water on top of me and because I KNOW it's coming. I know something is (most likely) going to happen to her oxygen supply.
I'm tense. I want to skip ahead to release the tension (I don't but I really, really want to.) This goes on for a number of pages, and for each of those pages my tension rises until finally it's nearly painful. Keep in mind, nothing bad has yet happened, but I'm ready for it. And then, of course, it happens.
Suddenly, there's no new air coming through her air hose. All she's got is what's in her suit. It's at this point that she runs into problems with her mission. She should be getting the hell of there, but I know this character. She's going to take that extra sixty seconds or whatever to fix the problem because she really doesn't want to have to do this again, so it will become a race against time.
Look at all those elements. A dangerous situation that transmits tension even before anything bad happens, a choice to make between giving herself the best odds of survival or accomplishing her mission and cutting her odds, which leads to an even tighter race against time.
Great stuff. This is a master at work. And it goes on for pages. (Yes, I've said that before, but it's important.) Reading it, I have no sense that he's using any of the overt tricks to increase the pacing. Looking back, I see that some of his sentences are in fact fairly lengthy, but they are sandwiched between shorter ones. Most are direct and to the point. He can afford those longer ones though because MY tension that I bring to the story--that I was manufacturing in anticipation long before the crisis--makes me swallow those words as fast as I can. I, the reader, am ratcheting the pacing up with my internal tension.
Did I say Hugh Howey was a master? I meant genius.