We all dream of that day we read a review that says, “I couldn’t put this book down”. We want our readers to be eager to turn the pages; but how do we achieve that?
By using tension. That’s how.
Tension is not an easy technique to learn as a new writer, but it is essential for a long and fulfilling writing career. In this article, I will explain what tension is, why it is important to a story, and how to create it on the pages of your next work in progress.
What Is Tension?
Tension building is a phrase used in creative writing circles when discussing the conflict that is explored in the novel by the main characters.
It is essential to know that to create tension, you must first give your readers something to be afraid for; but be aware, being afraid of something is not the same as being afraid for something.
Being afraid of something is to fear something that may harm you; being afraid for something means to be worried that it might be harmed in some way. The it being something your character cares deeply for, or desires.
Think of this in the context of your novel. You want your reader to be worried that something could get in the way of what your character truly desires. You want readers to be fearful that something will get in the way of the protagonist’s ultimate happiness.
Tension Vs Suspense
Although many will see these two terms as being interchangeable, they often work hand in hand, but they are not the same.
Tension happens as your reader anticipates conflict (that thing that is stopping your character getting what they really want) impacting the thing your protagonist desires the most.
Suspense grows steadily throughout the course of a novel while the conflict remains unresolved.
You can’t have tension, or even suspense, without a central conflict.
Why Is Tension Important In A Story?
We now know that conflict (that thing stopping your character getting what they want) leads to tension (that thing that makes us care about the character resolving the conflict) which in turn leads to suspense (as we keep that resolution of the conflict from them).
This results in your reader feeling a compulsive need to keep turning the pages.
Tension is also about tapping into the emotion of your character and creating a presumed emotional impact if they don’t get what they truly desire. You are creating an emotional connection between your protagonist and your reader, encouraging emotional investment.
So, why is tension important? Essentially, without it, you will have a dull book that your reader does not feel emotionally invested in or compelled to finish.
Which Genres Rely on Tension?
I don’t believe there is a single genre that does not use and embrace tension.
Thrillers, mystery, suspense and even horror are easy to identify as those that rely on strong tension on the page, but the truth is, you can (and should) create and build tension in any genre.
Take romance for example, and Romeo and Juliet. The tension in that story is created by telling the reader that it matters little how much the pair love each other, as their love is forbidden. Shakespeare created a central conflict so strong that it in turn created tension on the page for the reader.
How To Create Tension In Writing
There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to building tension on the page – but there are 8 simple steps you can follow to make sure you have your reader begging for just one more page before bed.
Character Led Conflict
To create tension in your novel, first your readers need to care about the protagonist. It’s essential that you have well developed characters that your readers find themselves rooting for.
You need to find the one thing your character wants the most in life.
Then, find a way to keep it from them.
The key here is to make sure this is specific to this character. To their life. It must be something that will emotionally affect them if they don’t achieve it; but here is the kicker, your reader needs to care too.
Your reader needs to want your character to achieve their goal as much as they do. So, dig deep and find out what they really want, and just what they are prepared to do to get it.
Conflicting Characters With Opposing Goals
The best way to keep something from your character, is to create someone (or something) to keep them from their goal. Your reader wants to see your character’s personality develop as they fight to achieve their goal, so put someone in their path with opposing goals or give them something to fight against. This rising conflict will increase tension and keep the reader engaged.
If you want your reader to be a page turning cheerleader, give they something to cheer for.
Raise The Stakes – Then Raise Them Again!
What does your character stand to lose if they don’t achieve their goal? How will it change them, affect them, harm them? How close can you get them to their goal before taking it away again?
You want your reader to want to jump into the book and fight for your protagonist.
For narrative suspense and tension, you want your character to try and fail multiple times. Many authors use the rule of three, although it’s not a ‘rule’. In essence, have your character fail twice, each time raising the stakes, before they eventually succeed.
Pacing Is Key
Pace is key, pace is King!
Creating tension and suspense does not mean that every single chapter needs to be fast moving.
Fast paced chapters, urgent, sharp and to the point, will create forward momentum and a sense of urgency; but slower paced chapters can be gentle, giving your character a chance to reflect on what they want and why.
Slower paced chapters can also be packed with the emotion you need to get your reader to care. Play with pace; it can make or break a successful novel.
Create Curiosity In Your Reader
One of the best ways to create and sustain tension as your story progresses is to keep your reader asking questions and engaged at all times. It’s essential to keep your reader curious, so have them asking enough questions in those quiet moments to keep them turning the pages.
Internal And External Conflict
Internal conflict is just as important to tension as external conflict. Although we mention creating something or someone to keep your main character from their goal a lot, often the most difficult conflict to overcome is the one in your own head.
How is your character stopping themselves from getting what they want? Fighting external sources is a great way to create fast paced chapters, but those quiet moments are when the internal struggle of your character will show itself. What do they need to change within themselves to achieve happiness?
Master The Sub Plot
Sub plots are your friends! Embrace them.
You don’t want your characters to live in a one-dimensional world. External factors and other people’s lives will affect your characters journey. How can you use the sub plot(s) to raise the stakes? Tension coming from multiple sources will create a sense that the world is closing in, adding to a sense of urgency and emotion on the page. You can even add a plot twist or two to keep the reader interested.
The Ticking Time Bomb
From some of the earliest books we read as readers, to some of the most successful novels ever published, we see authors using the ‘ticking time bombs’ to add tension.
Take Cinderella for example; there was literally a clock ticking down to her reveal. Another more contemporary example might be that of Dan Brown in his Robert Langdon books; working against the clock to solve the mystery before anyone else is hurt.
Introducing a time limit/deadline injects your story with stress – having your characters work against the clock (either towards an actual or an imposed deadline) will force your protagonist to make snap decisions, heightening anxiety and conflict.
Top Tips For Creating Tension
Now, we know what tension is, we know the difference between tension and suspense, and we know that conflict is key; but how exactly do you implement that in written form?
Use All Your Senses
Your characters should be fully formed, well rounded people, so don’t forget that they have more than one sense. Don’t just see; touch, taste, hear, and smell your surroundings. Immerse your character and you will immerse the reader. Have them feel ‘that icy breath’ on their neck, or the ‘quickening of my heart, a stampede through the African plains of my chest’. Don’t just tell them how to feel, make them feel it.
Use Short Sentences
Play with sentence length, structure, and cadence. Placing short sentences together will force a quickened pace of reading. Use the cadence of your sentences to emphasise sudden events, or wistful moments. If you want the reader to feel a quick heartbeat, try mimicking the rhythm of a heartbeat with the words on the page.
Consider Your Language
Think about the words you use and when. Use panic heavy conjunctions to emphasise pace and speed. Panic conjunctions such as ‘suddenly’ are often overused, but you could try ‘abruptly’, or ‘unexpectedly’ or even ‘without warning’.
If you want the reader to see, feel and hear your character, make sure the language matches the action.
Use Your Surroundings
The weather can be, and is often, used to help create tension, suspense, and emotion on the page. Pathetic fallacy is where we attribute emotions or feelings to weather patterns.
For example, ‘the flowers danced in the breeze’ – now we know that flowers don’t dance, but this description allows the reader to know that this scene is a serene one.
Whereas, with ‘the wind whispered its secrets through the trees’ – we know that wind doesn’t whisper, but this sense of foreboding creates tension on the page.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do Writers Create Tension And Suspense?
There is no hard and fast rule– but there are 8 simple steps you can follow to make sure you are creating tension and suspense.
- Create character led conflict
- Characters with opposing goals
- Raise the stakes
- Perfect your pacing
- Create curiosity
- Balance internal and external conflict
- Master the sub plot
- Consider a ticking timebomb
How Do You Create Tension On The Page And In Dialogue?
Here are some of mytop tips for increasing tension on the page and in dialogue:
- Be clever with your use of short sentences, sentence structure and cadence
- Use all your senses
- Consider your language carefully – try using panic conjunctions and pathetic fallacy
- Use interruptions during dialogue
- Narrate tense moments in between dialogue
What Are The Four Types Of Tension?
Tension in fiction can generally be grouped into one of these four categories:
- Tension of the task
- Tension of relationships
- Tension of surprise
- Tension of mystery
What Is The Difference Between Tension And Suspense?
Tension happens as your reader anticipates conflict – that thing that is stopping your character getting what they really want – impacting the thing your protagonist desires the most.
Suspense grows steadily throughout course of a novel while the conflict remains unresolved.
Mastering the skill of tension requires practise, but once mastered, you will have a loyal following of readers always eager to come back and read more. It’s all about balance, nuance and detail. Give your reader just enough time to breathe before you set them off running again, and always give them something to run towards.
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