Guest Post: Rachel Aaron on Creating Better Flaming Trees


Hey everyone.  Today I’m pleased to welcome to Magical Words a guest star and good friend of mine, Rachel Aaron. I had a clever little introduction planned for her, but then she sent me her post and I discovered she took care of introducing herself. (Very efficient, that Rachel) So without further ado, I’ll turn this post over to her.


My name is Rachel Aaron, and I’m the author of The Legend of Eli Monpress, an adventure fantasy series about a charming wizard thief and the trouble he gets himself into, published by Orbit Books. You might also know me as that lady who took her writing from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. This month, my first first three books are being re-released in a lovely (and fantastically priced) omnibus edition, so I begged Kalayna to let me come over here and make a guest post to mark the occasion. If you’re interested in learning more about my books, I invite you to head to my site and read the free sample, otherwise, let’s move on to the more writerly topic of pacing and tension!
Now, I’m going to assume that all Magical Word readers know about the Three Act Structure most modern stories use. If not, or if you need a refresher, I highly suggest watching the first few minutes of this video from Extra Credits on the subject. Yes, it’s about video games, not books, but it’s one of the most concise and well done explanations of basic story structure I’ve ever seen. There’s also a good explanation of why amnesia plots are lazy. Plus, it’s funny! Totally worth the watch.
Ok, now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk pacing. Writing as fast as I do, I’ve gone through a lot of stories over the past year. Some I finished and sold, others I haven’t yet. Some I quit in a rage, and of those, there are still some I went back and finished once I’d cooled down. But in every one of these novels, even the ones I planned in the sort of excruciating detail you’d use for a military campaign into enemy territory, even the one I wrote in 12 insane, glorious days, I ran into problems. Sometimes I got past them, sometimes I didn’t, hence the ragequiting I mentioned above. But after about six of these suckers, I started to realize something troubling. I wasn’t running into new problems every novel, I was running into the same problem over and over again, just in different guises. The name of this boulder in my path? Tension.
The lead up was always the same. I’d be writing along happily, and then I’d hit this scene where I just didn’t want to write. I’d be all set to go in my chair with my coffee and my laptop, but then I’d get distracted by this or that and the writing time would tick away until it was time to stop and I had nothing to show for my day. I used to think these wasted days were because I lacked discipline, but after years of beating myself up, I’ve finally learned that not wanting to write is my brain’s way of telling me something is wrong, and 2 times out of 3, the problem is tension (1 time out of 3 it’s character issues, but that’s another post).

My friend John Hartness once said that the three act structure can be summed up like this: You put your characters into a tree, you light the tree on fire, you get them out of the tree. A good explanation, but novels are more complicated than that. There are variations of how much the tree is burning at any one time. This variance is vitally important, but to show you what I mean, I’ll need to employ a visual aid.

This is the action graph for the plot of a little movie called Star Wars, maybe you’ve heard of it?

(Image found ages ago, credit sadly unknown. If this is yours, please let me know and I’ll get your name on it. Also, this graph is amazing! You rock!)

As you can see (and as the Extra Credits video explains way better than I could), we’ve got a classic three act structure here with the death of Luke’s parents as the inciting action. After that we’ve got a series of peaks and valleys as the tension goes up and down between the momentous events that form Act 2 (There’s another really fantastic EC video about the importance of varying your tension for pacing, but again, that’s another post). The highs and lows are evenly distributed, climbing steadily until we reach Act 3 and the explosive conclusion.

Think of a book as a roller coaster. Ideally, you want your readers to spend just the right amount of time on each part. You want the heart pounding climb with the click click click of the chain as they’re pulled up, the breathless moment before they go over, the rush of the ride down, and the brief relief of reaching the bottom before it starts all over again. Overstaying any one of these spots can ruin a book’s pacing, but the worst by far is lingering at the bottom of the dip.

And that brings us back to my persistent novel problem. Every time I would hit this scene I didn’t want to write, it was invariably because the tension was slacking. My roller coaster was idling at the bottom of the dip, so to speak. It was always for a very good reason, of course. My plot needed that talking scene where important things were explained! But one of the things I’m slowly learning is that tension, not plot, runs my novels, and when the two collide, tension always wins. My job as author, then, is to match my plot to my tension and make sure that not only do the events happen in a logical order for the story to progress, they act in an exciting order to keep the tension high.

So how did I solve my tension problem? Well, more often than not, I lit more of the tree on fire. If I have a dull scene that’s idling at the bottom of a dip, the first thing I try to do is cut it and move whatever is revealed/said/etc. to other, less bothersome scenes. If I can’t do that, then I have to make the scene more tense and exciting. The easiest way to do this is to make things worse for your characters. Kalayna Price’s Alex Craft books are a good example. Poor Alex barely has time to breathe with all the shit that’s flying at her, certainly never a dull moment.

Another way to add tension to a lacking scene is to add foreshadowing. Everyone loves a mystery, and if you have a love story in there, romantic tension is also a great way to ratchet up the excitement. A heavy dash of unresolved sexual tension can make even the most talking heads-y scenes nail biting. However you decide to solve the problem, though, the biggest step is always figuring out what’s wrong in the first place. I still have tension problems in every book, but now that I’ve figured out what they are, I can usually solve them with minimal hair ripping. I hope this post helps save your hair too.

Thank you so much to Kalayna and everyone else at Magical Words for letting me come in and slap down a wall-o-text, and I hope you’ll go check out the Eli Omnibus. Thank you for reading, and good writing!


8 comments to Guest Post: Rachel Aaron on Creating Better Flaming Trees

  • Very good post! It addresses something that I am currently trying to learn… ways to build tension and the use of pace. Thank you for your help!

    I will definately check out your books coming out, too. 🙂

  • MaCrae

    Aaah… that hit the spot. I have this problem too and (something just occurred to me in facepalm moment, thanks to your foreshadowing suggestion. Ppbft! Duh!) Ha! Anyway so far in my story I’ve set a branch on fire, but it was the wrong branch and it just fizzled out and the branch fell off. Now, with the proper foreshadowing, cutting, smashing scenes together, and flame thrower…the flames will spread. ( I LOVE this analogy) Thanks for the fantastic post! Now I’ve got all these fire puns in my head…

  • This was great, Rachel! Thanks for this post. I get that unproductive “don’t want to work” feeling, too, sometimes. It never occurred to me that tension (or lack thereof) might be a contributing factor. And I have the perfect opportunity to apply this to what I’m working on right now. 😀

  • rachel aaron

    I’m so glad you guys enjoyed it! I love any analogy where I get to be destructive! And yeah, I’d say the most important lesson I’ve learned from years of writing is that when I don’t want to write, it’s not because I’m lazy, it’s because something’s wrong. Such a simple, stupid thing, but it took me YEARS to learn. Ugh, so much wasted time.

  • (Not Luke’s parents! His adopted aunt and uncle! OK. Done. Putting the geek away now.)

    This is extremely helpful to me, too. I’ve realized similar things about my writing, but never quite put them into so many words. Without being able to put them into words, I had a difficult time figuring out what to do about that problem. Thanks for the tips on overcoming those low-point doldrums. 🙂

  • Ken

    Thanks for the very interesting post Rachel. It was very helpful, as was the link to your writing triangle 🙂

  • Unicorn

    Aha! This is what my problem is! Tension! I know I suck at pacing, but I didn’t know why I keep grinding to a halt. This is it!
    Thank you for the VERY helpful post 🙂

  • Nice post, Rachel — and yeah, I love the graph. (And thansk to Scribe for bringing her inner geek out so that I wouldn’t have to…) Thanks for taking the time to stop by MW. Great to have you here.