Creating Tension Without Using Gratuitous Violence, by Suzanne Adair

Posted by on May 27, 2013 in 18th Century U.S., Historical Research | 4 comments

A-Hostage-to-Heritage185x280A Hostage to Heritage was released last month. It’s the second title in the Michael Stoddard American Revolution Thriller series and my fifth work of crime fiction set during the southern theater of the Revolutionary War. In a review for this book, one ARC reader wrote: “Although the setting is the Revolutionary War, blood and gore and battle scenes are not the means for ratcheting the tension in the story.” Blood, gore, and battle scenes aren’t how I generated tension in any of my books.

So why would I set a series of books in wartime and not follow Hollywood’s lead in making use of a whole palette of violence in every scene?

Despite all those facts and figures about wars that we were forced to learn and regurgitate on tests for history class, wars aren’t only about blood and gore and battle scenes. Wars are mostly about human beings and their tragedies. There’s plenty of tension in a story about loss.

The “Rouse House Massacre” was a little-known skirmish that occurred the first week of April 1781 near Wilmington, North Carolina. My fictionalization of it figures in a sub-plot of A Hostage to Heritage and culminates several characters’ story of loss.

During the historical incident, armed redcoats entered a tavern in the wee hours of the morning. About a dozen local rebel militiamen lay, drunk and asleep, on the floor. The leader among them, a man fond of galloping his horse through Wilmington and shooting his carbine at people, had recently attempted to assassinate the British garrison’s commanding officer. So the redcoats made a business call to the tavern that night, and they shot or bayoneted most of the drunks.

The account from a comrade of the slain men who entered the tavern shortly after the redcoats left rivals any 21st-century news report for its sensationalism:

Upon entering the house what a scene presented itself! The floor covered with dead bodies & almost swimming in blood, & battered brains smoking on the walls; In the fire place sat shivering over a few coals, an aged woman surrounded by several small children, who were clinging to her body, petrified with terror. We spoke to her, but she knew us not, tho familiar acquaintences; staring wildly around, and uttering a few incoherent sentences, she pointed at the dead bodies; reason had left its throne.

The eyewitness then ramps up the sensationalism by describing how he and men in his company tracked the departing British. Although they didn’t engage the soldiers, they relished evidence they found that a few redcoats left the scene bleeding. Some of the drunks had managed to defend themselves before they were cut down. This action is the angle that Hollywood would film.

But did you notice the woman and children in that scene? The eyewitness, intent on establishing his dead comrades’ courage and sacrifice in the face of assured redcoat devilry, glides right over the woman and children.

Who were they? How did they happen to be in that tavern in the middle of the night, in the midst of a fight? Why did no one protect them from that horror? Can you imagine their terror and trauma?

Their names were not recorded during the historical incident. In A Hostage to Heritage, I gave them identities, a tragic past, a reason to be in the tavern that night. Where they came from and the trauma that they underwent is the human element in war. They’re us, our portal into the past. Their losses are what forge the tension, not scene after scene of blood, gore, and battle.

When an author takes the time to create a connection between characters and the reader, then deals losses to those characters, it results in empathy for the characters. With that connection, there’s no need to fling a whole palette of violence at the reader for them to feel tension. But without that empathy, an author may as well follow Hollywood’s lead.

Suzanne Adair, May 27, 2013



  1. Some of the best writers in literature including the Greeks and Shakespeare, left the blood and guts off stage. The reader’s imagination is the author’s greatest weapon in describing a horrendous scene.

    • Agreed, Marilyn. There’s a whole sub-genre of crime fiction that I think of as “psychopath how-to.” It involves page after page of the villain torturing his/her victim in excruciating detail, up close and personal. All that detail is unnecessary, IMHO, and a gross-out. Remember when horror movies from the 1950s and 1960s relied greatly on the viewer’s imagination? Now it’s mostly spattergore. Not every cinematic depiction of war needs to be “Saving Private Ryan.” Peter Jackson stopped short of the gross-out and did a good job of showing the brutality of war in “Lord of the Rings.”

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the post and the comments. Tragedy is not often about broken bones, it’s about shattered lives. My historical novels do have their moments of battle and rage but I hope that it is the human interest which keeps the reader’s involvement.

    I agree with Marilyn that the most violent incidents are best left offstage and to the reader’s imagination.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Martin. There’s so much more potential for depth in showing the shattered lives v. the broken bones!