Tension. It’s the potatoes to the meat of your story’s conflict, and a key element to receiving the coveted, “I couldn’t put it down!” review. While your novel’s hook gets the reader on the line, tension is what keeps them there. Not enough, and you may end up talking about the one that got away.
Want to reel in your reader? Here are three main areas where you can increase your novel’s tension.
1. Tension in Plot
The dictionary lists one definition of tension as, “a strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each other.” In other words, most of the tension in your book is going to come from the main conflict (or conflicts) that make up your plot. One of the best ways to increase this tension is to ask yourself, “What does my character want?” and “What is going to happen if they don’t get it?” and then…
Put every obstacle you can think of in their way.
Just when your MC thinks that things can’t possibly get any worse, they do. Light at the end of the tunnel? Extinguish it. Your MC gets a win! Oh wait, somehow even that throws a wrench in things. Their worst fear? MAKE IT HAPPEN. And bring emotions into it. Make the reader care about your characters. Give them unique traits, a quirky personality, a heartbreaking backstory, an important mission, a problem your reader can relate to…and then make your characters feel ALL THE FEELS. When we’re emotionally invested in a character, every one of those feels will create tension.
This is also the reason why stakes are so important and mentioned so often by literary agents. Without stakes — the something bad that will happen if your main character isn’t successful — there’s no story, because without consequences a character’s choices and actions don’t matter. So make sure your stakes are clear in the reader’s mind, and ever present in your characters’ motivations. The more the reader cares about those stakes, the more tension will be created.
2. Tension in Relationships
Whether it’s a hero and villain, love interests who hate each other, or a parent who just doesn’t get it, there’s most likely at least one relationship in your book that provides a great opportunity for tension (in fact, your plot may rely on it). Even friendships can be breeding grounds for tension (Ron and Hermione, anyone?). Here’s a few ways to take advantage of that:
Use snappy dialogue — Let the anger and irritation seep through their words. Make them say something they’ll regret. Leave one of your characters speechless. Have them overhear a conversation that changes everything.
Throw the characters together at every turn — Make them lab partners, or co-workers, or teammates. Just when they think they’ve gotten away from each other, force them to sit in the same room.
Put them in uncomfortable environments and situations — The hero shows up at family dinner to discover the villain is there as his sister’s date. Your reluctant love interests have to behave at their BFFs’ wedding. Timmy’s just been told he gets to spend the entire summer trapped in an RV with his parents.
(To sum up points 1 and 2: Heartless author = great tension.)
3. Tension in Action
In films, tension in action or suspense scenes is often heightened by tight camera shots, and of course, the perfect, spine-tingling score. So how can we use words to create that type of experience in our readers’ minds? First, we can zoom in by using strong verbs and cutting any extraneous details. Make sure you’re not pulling the reader out of the action by stopping to tell us what your characters are thinking or feeling. Show their reactions and emotions through the action. And just like a few short notes can get your heart pumping (dun-dun…dun-dun…dun-dun-DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN), exchanging some of your longer sentences for short, powerful ones will keep the story pumping and your reader flying across the page.
Lastly, remember that tension and pace go hand in hand. Tight pacing in your novel keeps the tension taut, too slow and the line will go slack. (For more on that, watch out for my next post: 6 Ways to Increase Your Novel’s Pace.)
What strategies do you use to keep readers on the edge of their seat? What’s the last book you couldn’t put down? Let us know in the comments!