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Downtime: Good For Your Life, Good For Your Story

We all know it’s important to make time for R&R. But did you know that treating your characters to some downtime now and again can serve a purpose?

Yes, yes. We can hear what you’re thinking. We know that there are a bazillion books out there that address the importance of high stakes in stories. And we agree that—depending on the type of book you’re writing and your goals—tension is key to success.

But let’s kick back for a moment and take a look at an underappreciated part of plot design: the not-so-high-tension scene—aka downtime.

What Do You Mean By Downtime In Scenes?

Every scene in your book or story has a set level of tension. Some tension levels make readers want to glue their eyeballs to the page because they can’t wait to see what happens next. Some make them want to snore.

In general, the tension level of a scene will stem from conflict. The bigger your conflict, the bigger your tension.

If your book or story is all high-tension, high-conflict, all the time, you’ll have to continue to raise the bar, and raise the bar, and raise the bar—until the bar is so high that it’s kind of unbelievable and maybe even annoying.

Your overall tension level might actually feel like it dives if every single scene is the same level of high tension. Once your reader gets accustomed to a certain level of tension, the story flatlines if it doesn’t offer peaks and troughs.

By pacing your story with occasional not-so-high-tension scenes, you can better control the larger shape of your story. Plus, you’ll give readers some breathing room so they can see who your character is when he/she is not totally wrapped up in the ONE BIG CONFLICT of your story.

So…Does That Mean I Can Let My Downtime Scenes Meander?

Well—you can always write whatever you want.

But it’s important to remember that just because a scene is not-so-high-tension (nothing blows up, nobody throws wine in anybody’s face, nobody’s hiding in the bushes outside), it doesn’t mean it should lack a purpose.

Scenes that step away from the ONE BIG CONFLICT can be very compelling and functional, even if they are quiet.

Examples are in order:

  • The president dismisses her team in the war room to spend Christmas Eve singing carols with her husband.
  • A man in the grip of a battle to find his missing child puts his worries aside for a moment in order to feed the ducks in the park.
  • A boy who is being bullied cuts school with his friends, who spend an hour sitting in a tree with him and talking comic book heroes.

The above scenes may offer moments of low tension in the larger context of the story, but they are opportunities for insight, growth, and discovery—for both the characters and the readers. Downtime isn’t about dropping the tension completely; it’s about shifting away from it slightly in order to get a better perspective of it.

  • By seeing the president singing with her husband, we get a sense of her values and capacity for fun.
  • When the man feeds the ducks in the middle of a crisis, perhaps he has a revelation about what it might mean if he doesn’t succeed in finding his child.
  • By seeing the boy talk about comic books, we see him working through the emotional elements of being bullied.

One caveat about downtime: Don’t leave your characters in it for too long. Your readers may get antsy. Otherwise, downtime in stories, particularly long stories and novels, can be very meaningful.

And—since we’re on the subject—the same can be true of the writing life.

This holiday season, we at Writer’s Relief hope you’ll continue to stay focused on your career as a writer, but remember that even your downtime informs your work, if you let it.

(And if you could use helping making a little more downtime, we hope you’ll call us.)

Characters, readers, writers—sometimes we all need low-tension moments.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: Which books or short stories have you read that make good use of varying tension levels?

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