The Two Minute Tension Test

Brace yourself: Today I’m doling out writing advice. It’s hard-earned (on my part), though, so hopefully it’ll be helpful to you.

Love her...

One of my greatest writing challenges is tension. I have a way with penning detailed descriptions, witty dialogue, and sweet (or steamy) kisses, but infusing my stories with high stakes and intense conflict is not my strength. I love the people who populate my books and, inherently, I want them content. The problem is, content does not make for an exciting read. I’m constantly working at finding ways to make my characters suffer. I want–need!–my readers to worry about these people I’ve created because really… why else will they continue turning pages?

So, I’ve devised The Two Minute Tension Test as a way to keep myself and my writing in check. It’s easy and it literally takes two minutes, but it’s made a big difference in my writing, especially the rewrite I’m currently working on.

To administer the Two Minute Tension Test, I highlight approximately three-hundred totally random words (about a page) in my manuscript. Then I read through them carefully, without the context of the scenes and the words that come before and after (as if I’m planning to post the three-hundred word sample as a teaser or for a contest or whatever). When I’m finished reading, I take serious stock of what happened within the highlighted sample.

Then I ask myself the following questions:

  1. Did I introduce a question (however big or small) about a character or a plot thread?
  2. Is whatever’s going on in this snippet the absolute WORST that can happen to these characters?
  3. Did I include a hook, something to pull my reader on to the next three-hundred words?
  4. Did I give my reader a reason to care?

If the answer to any of those questions is NO, then I know I’ve got work to do. I either fix the problem immediately (because I have very  little patience for a known deficiency) or I make a note of it in my outline to address later.

The Two Minute Tension Test is small-scale. It’s looking at the trees instead of the forest, if you will, but it’s a great way to zone in and assess your story in manageable bits. Once you’re proficient at applying it to three-hundred-word chunks, you can apply it to scenes, then chapters, then acts, and so forth.

So, there you have it: The Two Minute Tension Test.

Tell me: What’s your writing weakness? How do you compensate?


26 thoughts on “The Two Minute Tension Test

  1. Elodie says:

    Thanks for the advice, Katy! I am looking forward to checking 300 of my words using your Tension Test 😀
    On my part, I am afraid that my characters are not fleshed out enough. I know them very well but I need to remember that the reader doesn’t when she/he first picks up the book. My goal is to show those character traits to her/him 😀 Oh and currently, I am afraid of plot holes and query letters. Query lettes are super duper scary right now…

    • katyupperman says:

      I think characters are fleshed out and plot holes are plugged most often as you revise, Elodie. At least that’s the case for me. And I know you just recently finished your draft, so I’m sure you’re currently working on character/plot issues as you revise.

      Don’t you wish you could just snap your fingers and be done with a perfect manuscript? Writing is so darn hard!

  2. Alison Miller says:

    I am completely and utterly scared to try this….but I love this. And so I will. Try it, that is. I will probably end up slashing half my manuscript as a result. 🙂

    My weakness – laziness when it comes to description. I get so in the moment with my characters that I ignore their surroundings. Not always a bad thing, but definitely something I continue and need to work on.

    • katyupperman says:

      Based on what I’ve read of your writing, Alison, I don’t think you have to worry too much. I think you’re great at tension, particularly end-of-scene hooks. And, as I said, description is one of my strengths. If only we could swap!

  3. Rebecca B says:

    “I have a way with penning detailed descriptions, witty dialogue, and sweet (or steamy) kisses, but infusing my stories with high stakes and intense conflict is not my strength.” I have been battling this problem ALL WEEKEND! I am going to try this. Maybe if a section fails the Two Minute Tension Test I can actually bring myself to cut. 🙂

  4. Erin Bowman says:

    What a great little exercise! Thanks for sharing, Katy!

    My biggest writing weakness — or, at least what I’m struggling with the most right now while drafting book 2 — is stifling my inner perfectionist. I have a hard time just writing, getting the words out, telling myself to keep move forward rather than noodling around with the same three sentences. Sometimes it’s necessary to edit a scene. Other times I’m just avoiding writing the next one. Being honest with myself and identifying the difference is an ongoing battle 😉

    • katyupperman says:

      Oh, Erin. I totally have the same problem. I’m a reviser at heart. That first draft is PAINFUL to get down. I always want to go back and reread sections so I can edit (read: PERFECT) them. So not conducive to getting into the drafting zone. As usual, it’s so nice to know I’m not alone. 🙂

  5. Carolina Valdez Miller says:

    Ohhh, very nice. What a useful test. Although my characters are generally quite miserable and wound up and ready to kill me, I’m sure. Ha! But I’ll have to give this a try, especially in my slower moments.

    • katyupperman says:

      Looks like we have opposite strengths, Carol. I’m always a little horrified when writers gleefully talk about killing their darlings. Yikes!

      Hope my little tension exercise is helpful. 🙂

  6. Taryn says:

    My challenge is the opposite. I’m pretty good with tension (I mean, my MS took place over 18 hours, so it kinda had to keep on moving), but my characters missed out on being, well, whole people.

    • katyupperman says:

      Oh, I can see how writing your manuscript to take place in a condensed period of time could present characterization challenges. That ticking clock is such a great way to keep things tense and moving along though. Can we trade strengths, at least for a bit? 🙂

  7. Jaime Morrow says:

    I agree with Alison. I’m scared to try it but I’m definitely going to. This comes at a really good time because I’ve been fretting lately over whether my WiP has enough suspense. Thanks for sharing this exercise with us 🙂

  8. Robin Hall says:

    Great idea. I’m revising yet again and am going to go do the 2 minute test right now.

    The writing weakness I’m most conscious of today as I revise is I know in my head the flow of my original words and I want to hold onto favorite lines long after I know they’re not right. So now I’m cutting and pasting them into their own little word document. They still have a home:)

    • katyupperman says:

      I do the same cutting-and-pasting trick, Robin. Somehow it’s much less painful than hitting delete, and you never know if/when you might want to use those words again.

      Hope my little tension exercise is useful in your revision! 🙂

  9. Jessica Love says:

    This is so awesome, Katy. I’ll be using it for sure. My current WIP has pretty much NO tension. My drafts tend to be loooooong, boring conversations. Not exactly a compelling read at first.

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