Steven James: Tension by the Scene

Baker/Revell sent The Queen to me not long ago, and I’m thrilled to get it. I’ve never read Steven James, but I can tell you now–even only 1/5 into the book–I’ll read his work again. The man knows what he’s doing at the keyboard.

He’s particularly great at scene-by-scene tension.

Right now, I’m only on page 131, which means James is still in the set-up stage (although he’s not a big fan of “structure” models. See his “Story Trumps Structure” Writer’s Digest, February, 2011). His hero, Patrick Bowers, is investigating an apparent murder/suicide; an unrelated (so far) bad guy is on the loose in the area; and Bowers’ step-daughter is driving to him during a snow storm. Activity is slow, as investigations are, as set-ups generally are, but James keeps the tension up through a variety of means, one of which is to reveal one of Bowers’ childhood fears then make him live through it.

On page 91 in the hardcover edition, James sets up a scene that won’t occur until pages 97-101 by revealing Pat’s fear:

As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I’d had an almost pathological fear of falling through the ice. The idea of dropping into terrifyingly cold water was disturbing enough, but the thought of coming up beneath the ice and not being able to find the place you’d fallen through was even worse–the frantic and desperate search while your air gives out horrified me back then and, honestly, still did.

Later, James describes the setting: a portion of a lake that wouldn’t freeze because of warm spring waters beneath it; treacherous ice, solid to a point, but could splinter and crack without notice; and a vital piece of evidence–a snowmobile helmet–floating just beyond reach “Backward. Forward. Backward.”

Bowers needs that helmet.

He comes up with a brilliant scheme of lowering a ladder on the ice. He lies on it and reaches for the helmet  which stays just beyond his reach.

I came to the end of the ladder, lay down so I could extend my arm farther, and then reached for the helmet, but it was too far to my left.

Behind me, silence from the men. Unsettling in its depths.

The water splashed toward me, then receded, easing the helmet forward and backward with each throb of the wind-driven water . . .

After a moment, I felt the ladder rotate to the left, and I moved farther out over the waves.

The beating heart of the lake.

Forward. Backward.

Careful, Pat. Easy.

James draws this out, makes the readers feel the same icy waves Pat does, makes us wonder–will he reach the helmet? Will he fall in trying? James creates life in Pat’s immediate nemesis, the lake: the throb of the wind-driven water, the beating heart of the lake. We hear what Pat hears: an unsettling silence. Soon, we hear the ominous sound–not the gunshot blast we expect of cracking ice, but a bone-chilling, heart-stopping “deep groan stretching to both sides of me across the frozen lake.”

“Pull him back!” one of the officers yelled.

Tension. The bad guy isn’t anywhere around, but the tension is thicker than that slab of ice the ladder holding our hero is resting on.

Active verbs. Short sentences. Repetition. Bringing the inanimate to life. Those are classic tension-builders. So is setting up the fear involved several pages in advance.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
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5 Responses to Steven James: Tension by the Scene

  1. Great examples, Linda. Sounds like a great read.


  2. Sounds great! James has been on my TBR list for a long time. I can see I need to get around to him sooner than later.


  3. Linda Yezak says:

    Shove it up a few notches. You’ll like this one.


  4. Thank you, Linda. I love thrillers as well and have not read Steven James. I think I will have to now. Your analysis was perfect. Notes taken and will be applied.


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