I’ve been working feverishly to edit In the Bones so that I can start querying agents and publishers in my neverending quest to make it to every slushpile on the planet. I’m making quite a dent by the way. As you may have guessed, my optimism is waning. *sigh*

But that’s not the point of this post. While editing, a dear author friend who believes that pulling any punches will result in something horrific happening between himself and Karma, pointed out that my tension sucked. The characters are good, most of the action is good, but where’s the motivation? Why would a reader turn the page? He also pointed out that I was telling the reader far more than I was showing. Disgusted with myself, I looked at the manuscript with new eyes. You know, this freelancing stuff is a great way to pay the bills, but writing articles requires a far different mindset than writing fiction. My problem is that I have a hard time switching gears, moving from one mode of writing to the other. So while some days I’d write a great section of story, but my assignment edits came in by the thousands, another day I’d write 2000 or so words of story that tell, tell, tell but had no edits on my assignments. Don’t worry, I’ve fixed it. I adjusted my schedule too so that I wasn’t doing both on the same day.

What did I mean to say? Right, tension. How do I build tension? What is this tension? How much? Where and when? Oh, I had so many questions. Building tension is actually very simple. Figuring out if your novel has it is even easier. I’ll share:

Read your novel in scenes. Take one chapter and read scene one. What would you rate that bad boy on a scale of 1 to 10? Yes, the key is that the writer has to be brutally honest with herself. If you’re not, well you’re only hurting your chances of getting published. So, do what you will. Do the same for the remaining scenes in that chapter. When you’re done, you’ll have something like 2, 4, 3. Okay? So the first scene is pretty good, but not edge of your seat tension. I mean, come on, we’ve only just met the protagonist, so the reader has nothing invested yet. The tension is more of a curiosity to know what will happen next rather than an all-consuming need to find out more. The second scene, we’ve pushed the envelope a bit. The tension increases dramatically with the introduction of a major conflict. Perhaps the protagonist finds a letter which informs him he has three days to escape certain death. Again, it’s not a 10 because the reader is not completely emotionally attached. The third scene, well it’s okay. It’s not as intense as the previous, but it’s moving along faster than the first. The reader is curious, but not blown away.

You rate the tension based on factors like action, dialogue, conflict, and most importantly, does it move the reader to turn the page? Let’s say it’s got tons of action, a good amount of dialogue and the conflict is great. However, you’ve wrapped up the entire scene and handed it to the reader in a neat little package. Oh…and you have about four paragraphs of exposition on the second page of the scene. How does the tension rate? Low. Why? Because although you have all of this stuff happening, you haven’t kept the pace moving. The exposition slowed it down. Also, you wrapped it up so well, the reader has no questions. No reason to keep going. So while the rest is good, two of the most important factors, pace and motivation for the reader to go on, are shitty.

Do the same for every chapter and then make a little graph. Come on, you know you want to.  If you’re as inept as I am you might have something like this:

Look, I’m really technologically challenged, so let’s not mention the shittiness of that graph or how it’s creeping off the page into the sidebar. Okay? Good. Looking at the line, we see the tension begins well, rising nicely and then it takes a nosedive and levels out. These are the scenes that we want to look at more closely on rewrite. The tension should slowly build to the climax, part of that whole rising action thing. So areas that dip or level off as in chapter two of our example, need to be revamped to push that line upward, rather than down. How? Examine the scene. How does it end? Did you resolve it completely and tie a pretty little ribbon on it? Not good. We want the reader to turn the page. So instead of ending it with a resolution, we end it slightly before, moving the resolution to the next scene. See how easy that is?

But what if I did end it on a cliffhanger? Why is it so suckish? How much action and dialogue are there in comparison to exposition? Exposition, as I mentioned earlier slows the pace, which breaks the tension. Try to rewrite to remove it and then have another look. Better? It should be.

I have no exposition and a kickass cliffhanger ending, but it still reads kind of flat. Okay, does anything happen? Oh I know they drove to the bar and had a few drinks, but why? What was the purpose? What was it either during that drive or while having drinks that served to move the plot forward? Nothing? This is where the writer has to be tough. If it does nothing, delete it. Can’t? Try to move it or add something that moves the story along, that furthers the main goal of the protagonist. Each scene must serve a purpose. It must move the story along. Otherwise, it’s fluff. We don’t want fluff.

There are many ways to boost tension. So I turn it over to you, dear friends. How do you create tension in your novels?

8 thoughts on “Tension

  1. It's funny you write this post now. My mother just yesterday was saying "I'm reading this amazing book, best book I've ever read. You should read it and learn a few things. Keeps the reader hooked from the first sentence."My first instinct was to get a little standoffish, but then I did start to wonder a bit. Do I keep my readers hooked?I know I am hooked and I wrote the books. But maybe that's why I'm hooked. I know what happens, and I love it. So I keep reading.I do try to end each chapter so that the reader wants to turn the page to start the next. I think I'm pretty good at doing this when the book is ramping up into the climax. But I think I need to work on this in the beginning, when we're just meeting the characters, finding out what's going on, etc. I do find, too, that if you express how a character is feeling, as simple as that seems, it does tend to make the reader realize they should feel that way. Maybe the key is describing the emotional aspects, hightening them, and THEN ending the chapter in such a way that they're emotionally invested now, too. Hmm…….

  2. Yes, part of increasing tension is making the reader care about the characters. If she doesn't care, then why keep reading at all? Emotions play a huge role. And good point about why we may think that we've done our job. Of course, we're already in love with it. It's tough to distance ourselves enough to really see what we've got in those pages.

  3. I agree, tension is almost everything. I've just finished reading a commercial thriller. It breaks so many 'rules' with, for example periodic paragraphs of 'tell' just to maintain pace. But what it has in spades is a cynical slickness when it comes to cranking up the tension. Couldn't put the book down, despite being cheerfully aware I was being manipulated.

  4. I use the try/fail method for building tension.Whatever my hero or heroine wants most is just within their grasp. They usually have to accomplish some minor bit of work and the prize is theirs. Then I pull the rug under their feet.Every time they try, they'll fail, more spectacularly and with more dire consequences than the time before until it reaches the 'black moment'. I don't just throw monkey wrenches. I throw in the monkey too–and the horse he rode in on.Huzzah, I'm back online. Drinks for everyone!

  5. I agree with Maria, that's the best way to keep the reader hooked. I love doing that. Loving the characters and fearing for them is a strong motivator to keep a reader interested, but let's not forget that most people also like to gloat — like those terrible car crashes on the side of the road one cannot stop staring at. Pair these two feelings and you've got tension! 🙂Note: Don't know why my post vanished, luckily I had copied it before posting, in case my browser crashed. Yeah, I'm paranoid like that.

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