I remember reading somewhere that while plots should have tension, too much tension will tire the readers out, so there should be some breathing place, where the reader can get a chance to catch their breath.

Unfortunately, in one or two books I read recently, right after a tense scene, the authors started talking about something trivial, like psycho-analysing the hero's childhood, or the mid life crisis of a middle aged superhero. This bored me and I threw the books away.

While I understand that a breathing space is needed, how do I ensure that this breathing space doesn't turn into "bore" space?

Edit: The examples I gave are from action/thriller books, where all the psycho-analysing and "characterisation" really felt out of place. I understand these scenes may have been appropriate in a literary novel.

4 Answers 4


I think the phrase "breathing space" is misleading to the point of damage.

How does giving someone "breathing space" sit with making a story "unputdownable"?

"Changing gears" or "Pacing dynamically" is perhaps a better way of phrasing the experience you are looking for.

In movie script writing they refer to each "gear" or mood as a "beat". If you have a movie made entirely of one kind of beat then it just becomes stupefying in some way. Like a constant metronomic pulse... think Transformers 3, yes?

In order to give people a compelling ride you must interpolate beats to make a fascinating rhythm of events. So you have an action beat, then an emotional beat, maybe another action beat, a plot twist beat, an emotional beat, another plot twist and so on and so forth. When authors tend to be bad at this, as far as I can tell, they very much believe that they are giving the audience breathing space. "Emotional Beat" translates in the head of someone who prefers writing action scenes as "Moment of irrelevant whiny introspection". It's also possible to make a reverse error. People who like to write twisty-turny "exposition as action" scenes can really stuff up physical action scenes by making them overlong, one-note, cacophonous descriptions of unemotional laundry-list active descriptions.

Hollywood scriptwriters do not believe in giving the audience breathing space. Bear in mind that screenwriters are authoring works for the most mercurial, perverse, bizarre audience in the world: Hollywood movie producers. If these guys have time to inhale the next thing out of their mouth will likely be that they're not interested in the script.

I am of the school of thought that, like a screenplay, every scene should grab the reader by the scruff of the collar and keep them involved. Rather than just blaring noise into their faces, though, to achieve this, like a great actor, the prose must have its own metre, sometimes soft, sometimes loud, sometimes clever, sometimes stirring, sometimes light, sometimes dark. Like a compelling orator good prose can command a variety of moods but sustain a constant intensity.

Forget "breathing space".

To summarise. You do not need to give a reader breathing space. You need to give them a variety: an action scene with a sense of real stakes in which the reader is emotionally invested; a scene of emotion with a raw and charismatic intensity that seduces and fascinates the reader; a scene of revelation that hammers blows upon the reader's sense that they know where the story is going. If you just repeat any of these things over and over you will end up being tedious; loud and brash; manipulative and cynical; unsure what you are trying to say.

Of course, all of this is easy to say, doing it is the challenge.

  • 2
    Yup. I like this approach. The idea of putting stuff into a story that doesn't contribute somehow is odd.
    – Kate S.
    Sep 9, 2011 at 10:37

I don't think you can 'ensure' anything in writing. I think every book ever written has people who love it (the author, at least) and people who hate it. What you found boring, someone else probably found fascinating.

I think it's great to consider your audience and try to write what they want to read, but you also have to consider yourself, and consider what YOU want, in terms of writing and reading. So read your own work with a critical eye, and see whether you'd find it interesting as a reader.

In slightly more concrete terms:

Build the tension, reach a climax, and then start building the tension all over again. Don't psycho-analyze the hero's childhood unless that ramps up the tension. The tension could be increased because we start to care about the character more, or because it gives us clues about the current situation, or whatever else, but if it's totally unrelated, it shouldn't be there. The tension increase may be subtle, but it should be there.

That said, if you aren't the sort of reader who enjoys having characterization inserted in an action story, then don't write that kind of story. I think readers can tell when writers are faking it, so you should write the sort of book you'd like to read, and trust that you aren't unique; there are others out there who like the same sort of thing, and they're your audience.

  • Thanks @Kate, but you are talking about building tension, while my question is how to give the readers breathing space after a scene of tension. Sep 9, 2011 at 8:20
  • 1
    Yeah, I was addressing the 'keep it from being boring' part, by saying that you DON'T stop building tension, you just start again from a lower level. I don't think you ever want something in your book that isn't contributing to tension, you just do it at a lower level, and the lower level is what works as a break.
    – Kate S.
    Sep 9, 2011 at 10:35

I read a book called The Poison Throne (part of the Moorehawke Trilogy) by Celine Kiernan recently where I felt this was done incredibly well. She would build up the tension by building up the atmosphere of distrust between characters and hinting at violence to come, which would climax in said violence. Then she would give the readers a break with a scene or chapter in stark contrast to that atmosphere, where the characters are in the privacy of their own room(s) and you can see the very real, underlying love and trust between them that usually has to be hidden. It was a good way to let the reader catch their breath and far from sending them to sleep, it made the scene more powerful emotionally. Then the scene would launch another round of tension-building.

I think what made this work was the contrast. The tension comes from the characters not knowing who they can trust, and knowing that a single misstep in a world where everyone seems to be hiding a knife behind their back could cost them not only their lives, but that of those they love. Then she gives the reader glimpses of quiet times when the characters know that they can completely and utterly trust everyone else in the room and let down their guard.

Obviously your story won't have the exact same scenarios, but you could try contrasting technique and see if it works for you.


An analogue:

I had a friend in college who was a choreographer. She had recently presented a piece to rave reviews, and was amused that one of the moments which got the most positive attention was a long, slow, sweeping movement (I don't recall what the dance term for it was).

She told me, "This thing they love — it was right after a big, complicated, difficult sequence. I put that arm-sweep thing in to give the dancer a chance to rest!"

You may know that you're putting in a quiet scene to give the reader a breather. But the quiet scene has to have purpose. It has to contribute to the story. Find a reason for the quiet scene, and the tension-release takes care of itself. If you can't find a reason for a low-key scene, then maybe you don't need one.

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