Friday, July 6, 2012

Rattlesnake Bites – Building Tension

I escaped and rode hard, heading west to put as much distance as possible between me and the gunman Claire hired. Dillon Manley, notorious fast-draw killer, followed me . . . barely one day back.

The rapidly setting Colorado sun made travel too dangerous, so I set up a crude camp, only without a fire that might help Claire’s assassin find me.

Will Manley also bed down? I wondered as I tethered my horse for the night.

Probably not, I thought. Paid killers are usually pretty tough. He can’t track me in the dark, but he knows I’m heading west. He might continue along the trail under moonlight.

I laid back against my bedroll but could not sleep. I thought about my situation.

Three days ago, Claire announced our wedding plans, much to my surprise. Sure, her daddy owned most of the best cattle land in the territory, and marrying her promised a life of privilege and comfort, but that was not why I came west after college. Gold-rush fever had set in from reading all the stories about gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California. After selling all my possessions, I headed west to seek my fortune, until I met Claire.
Tired and hot, I had stopped to water my horse and bathe in a clear mountain stream. A rider approached at a full gallop. Claire reined her tall palomino to a dust-clouded stop. She was beautiful. Sitting straight-backed in the saddle, she demanded why I was trespassing on their ranch.

Her hard demeanor softened as she assessed me. Drips of water clung to my bare chest, and my hair must have been a mess, having already washed out the day’s travel grime, but she did not seem offended by my disheveled appearance.

An uncomfortable silence developed as she looked from my chest to my horse and back. I felt odd under her gaze.

Trying to break the tension, I said, “Thank God, I didn’t take off my pants to bathe.”

She smiled. “Nice roan. Saddle looks a bit decorative for a wrangler. You're no cowboy. Where are you from?”

She dismounted and approached with a noticeable air of superiority. Using a single finger, she traced between water droplets on my chest and abdomen. Lips parted and the tip of her wet finger touched her tongue. She smiled. No woman ever treated me like that before.

One thing led to another, and I ended up spending six months working the ranch for her father. Claire and I got real close, you know, in that special way. I thought it was just mutual enjoyment, until she surprised me by announcing “our” wedding plans.

Panic set in. I never discussed a long-term relationship with her. She became enraged when I told her so.

Loud neighing broke my thoughts. My horse reared up, pulling hard against her secure lead rope.

“Manley! He’s here,” I whispered to myself and rushed through the dark to settle my horse.

“Whoa, girl. It’s okay,” I said trying to calm her. It did not work.

She reared back, striking in the air with her forelegs. I ducked frantic hooves and reached to the base of the scrub brush to release the knot. A searing pain shot up my arm from my hand.


What happens when your carefully crafted main character faces conflict? Is slow building tension enough? What if the slowly rising suspense suddenly explodes into a crisis?

The story above is a tiny part of a western that I am currently writing. I was happy with the slow building tension of the killer pursuing my MC, but I decided to introduce a crisis--the rattlesnake bite--to see what happens next. A wanton killer is tracking my MC fully intending to kill him. The woman, who once loved him, now hates him. And, he’s just been bitten by a rattlesnake.

Cool. I think that is sufficient tension to keep most readers entertained and turning pages.

If your story gets too predictable, or drones on, slowly building the main plot, spice it up by introducing your own version of the rattlesnake--an abrupt introduction of an unexpected twist. Remember, a good story is really a series of small stories linked by an overall plot. Make each one of those small stories exciting. “Rattlesnakes” can make that happen.

By the way, if you want to know what happens to my neophyte cowboy, you will have to buy the book!


  1. I'll be sure to read it!

    Maybe add a hangnail to the rest of protagonist's list of woes ;)

    1. If I do anything else to that poor boy, I'll be accused of sadism! Hmmm...hangnail?

      Thanks, Terry.

  2. As a counterpoint to this, should I work on, "Catfight At The O.K. Corral"?

    1. Sure, Dave . . . if you write it, I will read it. lol


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