Just add a spider.


Adding a spider to your shower is an extremely effective way to learn about adding tension. (Okay, so it wasn’t a tarantula or a Black Widow, but that’s beside the point. Really.)

As writers we know about adding conflict to our stories. But what about micro tension? That moment to moment suspense that makes a reader want to turn the page. We all want it. Here’s what I learned.

Put something in the scene that your character isn’t aware of at first  – let’s say a spider.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say your character is taking a shower – a simple mundane act that we usually don’t include in our stories. (I’m thinking about all the scary scenes from movies that take place in showers.) It could be any scene. But if it is a shower, make it a small stand-up shower without a lot of wiggle room.

In this scene, your character is naive, happy, going about her business. The story is moving forward.

Next, your character becomes aware of the spider.

And here is where the tension starts to rise. Even though the spider isn’t moving and is minding his own business, show the physical response in your character- like panic. Your character continues on in the scene, but is fully aware of the spider.

Then, the spider moves all eight of its legs, stretching, reaching. (Probably annoyed at the water splattering him.)

The original problem just became worse. The tension increases. Your character will find it extremely hard to continue what she was doing, but perseveres, hoping that the spider is just stretching before settling down for a long winter’s nap. Right.

Worse yet, the spider starts to move across its web.

Now, the character has lost all motivation in her original mundane act of showering. She is paralyzed, her eyes riveted on the arachnid, hoping he’s just repositioning.

But we can always make it worse for our main character. Right?

Now, the spider leaves its web and crawls down the side of the shower. This is the final act of terror that causes the main character to fumble with the shower door, open it, and grab for the tissues. And as your main character’s heart rate increases, so will your reader’s.

But no solution comes quick and easy.

Now the focus of your scene has switched from the mundane act to a highly stressful situation, fully focused on the main character’s predicament. She attempts to kill the spider in a single, quick act of violence (much against her character).  But the spider drops to the floor, its legs wiggling. The main character screams and jumps out of the shower.  Then she proceeds to take care of the problem with a lump of soggy tissues.

One last step. Show the recovery.

Your main character is shaken up, trembling.  After a few deep breaths, she resumes with her mundane act of showering. She is no longer naive and happy but totally creeped out.

So, there you have it. Just as tension rises from scene to scene, the smaller tension within a scene should rise to. And if you’re not sure how to add that micro tension – just add a spider. (Trust me, you’ll get the message loud and clear.)

How do you keep tension on every page, every paragraph, every line? I’d love to hear.

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8 Responses to Just add a spider.

  1. Heather Kelly January 20, 2010 at 3:07 pm #

    The big tension is what I’m working on in my revisions right now–building up and arc-ing (is that a verb? really?!) one of my main characters. This has been my big struggle during this revision. So, tension–good. Later I’ll put in the spiders.

    Thanks for this way of looking at it!

  2. Laura January 20, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    Arcing is definitely a word. Or should be. Its amazing that when I experience something like this (spider in the shower) I think two things: how does it relate to my writing, and, wow, that will make a good blog post. Good luck on arcing! 🙂

  3. Caroline Starr Rose January 20, 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    My agent has just told me I need to up the tension in a manuscript she’s been wading through. Now looking through things again, I see she’s right.

    Thanks for this!

  4. Laura January 20, 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    Good luck with those revisions Caroline! I’m telling you, just add a spider. 🙂 Or something like that. I’m still figuring it out too.

  5. Sherrie Petersen January 20, 2010 at 11:53 pm #

    Showers make me tense from the get go. I blame it on Psycho. All those ads for Hitchcock Marathons on KTLA when I was a kid — I still won’t take a shower if no one else is in the house!

  6. Laura January 21, 2010 at 12:17 am #

    I will definitely be looking out for spiders from now on! I just thought it funny that I almost immediately connected to writing a scene and adding tension. 🙂

  7. Karen January 21, 2010 at 3:19 pm #


    Love this analogy although I’m SCARED to death of spiders–get bitten by one once. Not fun.

    Tension is something that I always have to work in a revision. But I like to build up the tension like you’ve done in the spider analogy.

  8. Laura January 21, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    Karen, I am constantly working on tension. Now I’ll never think of tension again without picturing wiggly spider legs. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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