For this example I will be using the idea of a man lying prone on a hill watching the baddies loading a train with stuff. The head bad guy has our hero's girlfriend, and is pointing a gun at her head.
How do we build the tension here?
The Art of Crafting Sentences
Okay, there are ways to make sentences read slow or fast, and fast sentences are better for action scenes. But in a sniper scene I recommend going slow – the period before the shot should be a time of calm, of concentration, of reflection. Supposedly, the best sniper's shoot between heartbeats – certainly, I learned to shoot halfway through a breath. The character must be calm, and so should the reader.
The Calm Sentence
The calm sentence is a soft sentence. It has words of medium length, maybe a few long words. These sentences are between seven and fifteen words in length, usually. Yes, the length can be measured that exactly. Exceptions happen, so don't force the length. The most important thing is that the sentences be organic.
The sentences above are 7-11-11-8-7-10 words long. See, it can be done.
Some of the above sentences aren't soft – for instance “Exceptions happen, so don't force the length” is a hard sentence, mainly because “Don't” is a hard word.
One more thing, go easy on the punctuation. Very simple sentences.
So, medium length soft sentences are calming, are they?
The rifle in his hands was heavy, heavier than a weapon should be. It wasn't just the weight of the metal. There was another weight upon him, one he couldn't see or hear or touch or feel. The gun was heavy with guilt.
Yes, the second last sentence is a word two long, the last one a word too short. Remember, the most important thing is that they flow organically. The last sentence isn't a soft sentence at all – both gun and guilt are hard words, and I deliberately didn't refer to the rifle as a gun until this point. Using a hard sentence at the end of a soft paragraph can be an effective counter point. I think of it like casting an anchor.
So, in our sniper scenario we are using soft words, medium length sentences, lightly punctuated. In other words, calming sentences.
Until he pulls the trigger – then we have our action sentences. The pace speeds up, everything happens at the same time. Sentences are short, snappy. If you can get them down to just a noun and verb, do it.
These are good sentences. Cut out all extraneous words. Cut out all punctuation except fullstops. Please, please do not use exclamation marks! Keep them for dialogue! And only if you must!
I recommend going light even on the description, though some may be required.
He took a deep breath, blew half of it all and held the rest. His heartbeat was slow, steady. He was as calm as he was going to be. Donald was in his sights. Bryan found his inner peace, and pulled the trigger.
He saw blood spray from Donald's head. He heard the thunder-loud gunshot right inside his ear. It nearly drove him deaf. All he could hear was ringing. He focused through the sights. The enemy were in a panic, running for cover. He could have picked them off, one by one. He didn't. Let them panic for now. Let them feel the fear his family and friends had felt, before they were butchered. First would come the fear. Then the relief, the belief they were safe. Then he would strike again.
The pace of the sentences in the second paragraph is much faster than the ones in the first. The most notable way to test this is to read it out loud. Reading it out loud is a skill with more in common with acting than reading – a lot of people aren't very good at it. Provided you follow the natural rhythm of the piece, pausing where there's punctuation, it isn't too hard. I might do a post on reading out loud at some point.
But back to sniping.
Okay, the old adage about writing what you know holds true here. Don't take that as licence to shoot someone, though, would you not? I see it as meaning “if you don't know, don't make it up,” because you can guarantee your readers will know. And then you'll look like an ass.
So, what are important factors to consider when sniping?
- number of obstacles between yourself and the target
- noise levels
- the temperaure of the surroudings (target may appear further up or down than it actually is if temperature is not considered)
- gravity (the bullet will fall the further it travels)
- your current position. High or low? Prone, crouched, or standing (not recommended)?
- Elevation in mean sea level
- day or night
- the condition of your gun
Work some of these into your piece (too many and it will be over-crowded, like saying “Look at me! I did research. See my research.”
I recommend three.
Next we'll do gun battles.