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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Crank up the Tension

Almost any writing expert will tell you that one of the most important elements of fiction is tension. But in usual Dina fashion, I had issues with this. I don’t like tension. It’s, well—tense! Stressful. Upsetting. I grew up in a think positive, look on the bright side kind of home. I didn’t get the need for all this tension in my stories. If I wanted tension in my life, I could have been a lawyer, and I could be making hundreds of thousands of dollars right now instead of a pittance as a writer.

Then one day, I finally got it. The tension is the reason the reader keeps turning the page. Without the tension, they have no need to know what’s going to happen next. You mean my stunning imagery and characterization aren’t enough to keep them reading? Uh, duh, no they're not. Not against the screaming demands of everyday life. Readers need a darn good reason to keep them from putting that book down. In other words, when we say you need more tension, what we’re really saying is that you need to make your reader care more.

Oh! I can do that.

So I learned how to crank up that tension baby. And really, it was there all along, I just wasn’t bringing enough notice to it. You needed a minor in psychology to find my tension.

Here are a few tips for cranking up the tension in your story. (I know a lot of people say ratchet up, but that sounds like tools, which make me even more tense.)

1)      Make the goal and obstacles crystal clear. I know as writers our big mantra is show don’t tell. And I think that’s what I used to do concerning goal and motivation. I would have Dandelion the peasant girl smelling meat wafting from the castle and brushing her fingers along the stone wall, and you were supposed to know that she longed for that life and would do anything to attain it. Maybe in literary fiction that would work. But generally speaking, it’s an author’s job to make it clear through dialogue or internal monologue what the character wants, why they want it, and what’s keeping them from getting it. This is how we let our reader know what they should care about enough to keep reading that book. Some authors will go as far as to reiterate this every scene. To me, that’s overkill. But do give your readers reminders throughout. Preferably worded in new ways and reflecting the growth of the character as the story progresses.

2)      Make us care about the stakes. In order to keep the reader interested, something has to be at stake. Not only does the character need a goal and an obstacle to reaching that goal, but something bad has to happen if they don’t reach it. Again, this helps our reader care and become invested in the story. And truthfully, the stakes don’t have to be huge. They can be life or death in a suspense or an adventure book. But maybe the stake is as simple as the heroine being lonely or unfulfilled or never living out her dream. In a comedy, the stakes could be completely ridiculous. Think Seinfeld and the soup Nazi. Who cares! Except that we did care. The characters cared. In their minds it was life or death, and we loved the characters, so we cared too.

3)      Let us know what the character is worrying about. Now here’s another place I used to make a big mistake in my writing. I was never allowed to worry or complain growing up. I was supposed to stay in faith, and if I did worry, I kept it to myself. At some point I realized my characters made the same mistake. You don’t want your character to be whiny and bringing up their problems over and over again in dialogue. Maybe they don’t even want to admit it to themselves. But at some point, they need to. Because your readers need to know what they’re worrying about so they can worry along with them, and again, so they can care. If you character isn’t fazed by their own problems, why would the reader be? And why would they turn to the next page if your character is doing just fine, thank you very much.

4)      Let us feel the character's emotions. Related to letting the reader know what the character is worried about, you need to let them actually feel what the character is sensing in a visceral sort of way. You need to let them experience the character’s emotions first hand as though they are living the story in a sort of fictional dream world. Is your character angry? What does that feel like in the body? Heat? Pressure? Head about to explode? If they’re sad or in pain, how can you as the author express that to allow your reader to enter the scene and loose themselves in it?

5)      End each scene with tension. I’m sure not every author will agree with this, but I’ve found it to be a very simple trick that really works. In other words, end each scene with a hook to remind us what we’re wondering or worrying about, and why we simply can’t put the book down. Often scenes end in a tense place naturally, but other scenes are resolutions to smaller complications in the book and end on a light or happy note. When I finish a scene, I look to see if there’s any good tension on the last page. If there’s not, I add some in the ending hook. For example, we just had a wonderful kissing scene and things are going great, and I end it with, “but how long could the illusion last.” Ta da! It’s a romance novel. There’s 150 pages to go. The reader knows something's got to go wrong, but without the reminder, they might just lose interest.

So those are my techniques for cranking up the tension. Authors, what tricks do you use to keep your reader's interest? Readers, what makes you really care about a book? What makes it impossible to put a book down?


  1. Oh I love this. When you put it like this I can do it too! This is one area I need to go deeper with. Thanks so much. I like to use lots of action and I think that helps when you are trying to build a tense scene.

  2. Glad to help, Jan. I also posted this on Inkwell Inspirations, and it seemed to connect with a lot of the ladies.