Writer’s Craft: Managing Tension With Peaks and Troughs by Rayne Hall

Tension is good. It makes the reader turn the pages. However,  constant high tension soon gets dull. The readers can’t sustain continuous scared excitement, and after a while, instead of roused, they become bored.

It’s like the waves on a stormy sea: the peaks are only high because of the troughs between them. If there were only continuous peaks without any troughs, the sea would be flat.

Your job as writer is to create not just the peaks, but the troughs which make the peaks look high.

Allow your protagonist to relax and get her breath back before throwing her into the next frightening experience. During this brief relaxation of the tension, your reader’s heartbeat returns to normal – so it can accelerate again.

If you’re writing a thriller, some of the tension stems from the reader fearing for the main character’s safety. Here’s what the scary part of your story might look like if it consisted only of peaks, and how a skilled writer might handle it by alternating peaks and troughs.

Peaks-only version

The heroine gets tortured by the villain. (Peak)

She escapes by lowering herself through the window down the three-storey façade. (Peak)

As soon as she’s outside, she gets pursued by the villain’s minions. (Peak)

To escape from the minions, she hides in a warehouse between boxes and canisters, and the minions immediately set fire to the place. (Peak)

This is too much relentless scare. By the time the heroine faces the snake, the reader scarcely cares anymore.

Peaks & troughs version

The heroine gets tortured by the villain. (Peak)

Finally, he retires for the night, and the pain ceases. (Trough)

She escapes by lowering herself through the window down the three-storey façade. (Peak)

Outside, there’s bright light, and a road leading to freedom. (Trough)

She hears the villain’s minion’s footsteps and voices, and runs for her life. (Peak)

To escape from the minions, hides in a warehouse. She catches her breath and bandages her wounds and lies down between boxes and canisters to get some much-needed sleep. (Trough)

She wakes to the smell of smoke and the prattling of flames. The minions have set the place on fire. (Peak)

The troughs don’t have to be long. One paragraph is often enough. You can insert a short trough in the middle of a scary scene, or as a transition between two scary scenes. At other times, you may want to insert a whole “trough” scene between two “peak” scenes. For example, in the climax of a thriller, you can insert a non-scary scene, perhaps a tender love scene, between two terrifying sections.

Don’t overdo the troughs. If they are too long, or if there are many of them, they can make your writing boring. Don’t allow your reader to become too relaxed. Use the troughs sparingly and keep them short.


If you’re a writer and want to discuss this technique, please leave a comment. I’ll be around for a week and will reply. I love answering questions.

6 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft: Managing Tension With Peaks and Troughs by Rayne Hall

  1. Pacing is essential to great fiction, and Rayne coins a great technique for managing pacing in thrillers. You should definitely buy her book Storm Dancer as an example of how to manage adventure fiction.

  2. Reblogged this on Wind Eggs and commented:
    Pacing is essential to great fiction, and Rayne Hall coins a great term “peaks and troughs” (valleys to Americans) to explain one technique to manage pacing in thrillers.

    Her novel Storm Dancer a great example of pacing, and a great model for indie writers learning their craft. (Her writers’ craft series is excellent too.)

    To learn more about peaks and troughs make sure to read this post.

  3. Exactly. As a reader, I value troughs. Some books tire me out with too much action. Characters never sit down to reflect, converse, or just breathe, so I feel like I haven’t either. I binged watched the Longmire series recently and by the end was exhausted. I liked it, but there were no troughs. As a writer, I’m good at troughs, though. It’s the high tension I have trouble manufacturing.

  4. You make a valuable point. I wish screenwriters would take this advice. I love a good thriller, but often I find myself either exhausted or tuning out all the ever-heightening tension. Enough already!

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