Boot Camp Day 9: INTENSITY

It’s the name of a kickin’ Dean Koontz novel, but that’s not exactly what we’re about here. Except, yes, Koontz is a master of the skill we’re talking about today:

Maintaining Intensity in the Second Act

And yes, we’ll focus on Act 2 for the rest of this week as you continue to use your scene chart as a tool.

Our last mission was to tighten your pacing in Act 2. But you have to maintain a stream of interest as it happens–and that’s an art. The first person who explained it well to me was Donald Maass in his book, The Fire in Fiction. He called the concept, “Scenes that Can’t be Cut.”

I call it “Down-Range Interpersonal Combat.” If you want to earn your stripes as an author, you have to master Down-Range Combat. You have to keep the readers’ interest … but how?


It can be subtle, or it can be up-yours aggressive, but you have to maintain a stream of intensity that carries readers through the second act. When they hit the next window”–the one that leads you into Act 3–the stream needs to churn into rapids.

So how do you build a stream out of words, characters, and a setting? The answer is intensity–tension–even microtension. I like to think of that radio song that I didn’t hear the end of, so it stays with me all day. Or that annoying road near my home where the lanes are slightly drawn wrong. We all have to sit up and take notice there, so that we don’t drive into each other.

The edge of their seat is where your reader should be. And like that song you didn’t hear the end of, your conflicts shouldn’t be fully resolved here–just laid out to pull on your character’s emotional strings. Yep, it’s a puppet show where everyone suffers, nobody gets satisfaction, and the buildup is driving your readers crazy enough to…to turn the page.

Sure, something good can happen now and then, but at every turn, your characters need to get more and more conflicted. You might be slowly revealing clues, but as you do so, you need to slowly build your tension. Sure, maybe they’re not firing machine guns at each other, but your characters in Act 2 should face Down-range Interpersonal Combat.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Pull out a scene from that act, a slow one.

What’s wrong with it? Are you resolving conflicts before the reader feels their full effect? That’s something I notice a lot in scenes I critique. Are you taking us deep enough into your soul as you write? You can’t be detached here. If you, the writer, have remained calm and detached in this act, I promise The reader will end up setting the book down.

Act 2 is your Gettysburg. The stakes need to build, we need to have casualties, heroics and a few turns of consequence. Nothing get fully resolved here, but sure you can make some plans, pronouncements–and if your reader ips fully engaged, he’ll feel a little shell-shocked at times. A little bit angry or fearful.

If he isn’t FEELING the intensity, you haven’t delved deep enough. So do it TODAY, Private. Put your characters through combat.e


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