10 Ways to Increase Tension

10 Ways to Increase Tension

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Tension is a huge part of engaging your reader with the story. And it helps to engage you, the writer. No one wants to read a book where the Big Problem is solved in chapter one, or where a character has nothing to overcome, no challenges to face. The cat sat on the mat vs the cat sat on the dog’s mat. Challenges drive a story.

Your job is to create the right amount of tension at the right time to keep readers wanting more. Here’s ten ideas on ways you can inject needed energy whenever your story begins to slow down or fall flat.

1. Raise the stakes

The greater the risk of loss or danger, the higher the tension. If at the start he stands to lose his job, but then his life is threatened, we have rising tension. If his life was in danger at the beginning, but that dissolves and all he stands to lose is his job—rising tension? Not so much.

2. Let your character fail

Each time a character attempts and succeeds at solving parts of the “big problem,” he moves closer to a successful resolution. But if he fails at some of the attempts, he has fewer options to succeed, and often less time in which to accomplish his goal.

3. Escalate threats and obstacles

If the character has just succeeded in winning a major sword fight, having her beat a sparring partner at practice will have no tension. Presented in reverse, both happenings carry tension.

4. Let readers know something the character doesn’t

If we know that a character is being stalked, but she is unaware, we have tension. If we see him get closer or cock a gun and she still is unaware, tension rises.

5. Play up emotional strain

It’s easy to add physical danger, but psychological strain is just as important. A decision to make; guilt over an action, fear of discovery, a secret suppressed.

6. Balance high dramatic tension with calmer scenes

High tension scenes all the time is exhausting for a reader. Let them breathe with quieter paced scenes so that when the next high-tension scene arrives they get the thrill of rising adrenalin again.

7. Change up the source of tension

If suspenseful scenes only happen when the antagonist is on stage, predictability sets in and tension is lost. If the reader never knows who will instigate the next conflict, threat, misunderstanding, mistrust, dislike or complication, tension is always tantalizing, just on the cusp.

8. Keep characters active

Passive characters who wait for things to happen to them rarely create tension. Characters who act, react and are proactive keep things fresh and moving when they become the source of tension.

9. Limit backstory

While backstory is essential to understanding why a character does what he does, it’s all past action and stops the active story from moving forward. Keep backstory short and meaningful to the active story event. Or save it for areas where you want a break from high tension.

10. Make writing craft work for you

In addition to “just telling the story”, consider the power of setting to create a suspenseful mood. Use loaded symbolism and word choice to heighten what is happening.

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There All Along

There All Along

Guest Post: Erin Thomas

Today I took a life drawing class, part of a teacher meet-and-greet event at Centennial College. Unlike the gentleman who jokingly stood up and pretended to walk away when the teacher explained that there was no nude model, I was intrigued by the sound of our assignment: we were going to draw an eye.

 First Steps

The charcoal felt alarmingly light in my fingers and snapped off at the slightest provocation, but I slowly got the hang of drawing with the side of it, not the tip. Shading. Playing with weight and layers and darkness. The bumps on the easel board under my paper gave an interesting texture, like leaf-and-crayon art.hand-drawn-987070_1280

The eye was a sphere, the teacher explained, and that was where we were to start—just shading a circle. With no real understanding of how the dark blob on my paper was going to turn into an eyeball, I followed her lead. Soon we were covering part of the eye-circle with lines that turned into an eyelid. A lower lid followed. I had lines in the wrong spot; finger-smudging made them paler, but they didn’t quite disappear.

“Don’t try to copy,” the teacher advised. “Just think about the shape of the eye.” But I couldn’t see the sphere of it anymore. The lid seemed to be covering an eye-blob that was a different shape than the eye-blob that was emerging.

Adding More 

I made more lines. It didn’t help.

I stepped back, tryeye-1447938_1280ing to find the beach ball of the greater eye within the drawing. It looked wrong, that was all. Unbalanced. I had drawn the eye of a crazed murderer, a horror-movie clown. And it was staring at me.

I made a line, smudged it out. Tried again, making a bigger mess each time. Eyelashes maybe? No. It turned out that eyelashes were not the answer.

 Uncovering

“Good,” the teacher said. Good? Were we looking at the same drawing? Ah. This was teacher good, not real good. I have used this good myself.

“Just clean it up here and here,” she added, and with an eraser she cleaned up some of the leaf-and-crayon-like texture in the eye-white. She showed me that there is usually a space between the iris and the lower lid, and with a quick dodge of her hand, made it appear. She adjusted the shape of the area over the eye, and suddenly it matched what was beneath it.

There all Along

Now I could see the beach-ball roundness, the shape of it, the lines that belonged and the ones that didn’t. It had been there all along; I just couldn’t see the shape of it. Now, I could.

Erin's Eyeball Art
Erin’s Eyeball Art

How often have I done this with a piece of writing? When something’s not working, sometimes our impulse is to keep adding lines. Add another character to supply the missing bit of information, add a plot twist to add excitement. Soon the shape of the story is obscured.

Part of what I love about my writing groups is their ability to see the shape of the eyeball underneath it all, when I can’t. To point out which lines I should erase. How many times will I need to learn the lesson that the right answer to a story problem is usually the one that’s already seeded in the manuscript? Sitting there. Waiting to be seen.

What doesn’t add…

The miracle of the eraser reminds me of my favourite piece of writing advice, one I heard from Kathy Stinson, although she makes no claim to have invented it. “What doesn’t add, subtracts.” And sometimes, it seems, subtracting is a way of adding.

Stories, it seems, have shapes of their own. telling-libraries-stories-with-video-11-638

Switching between charcoal and eraser, I made an eye. This eyeball art of mine is not going to win any prizes. It was not even the best piece of rookie eyeball art hanging on the wall with all of the other rookie-art eyeballs. But it is arguably the best thing I’ve ever drawn.

I’m going to keep a picture of it handy, to remind me to think about the shape of my story. To remind me, when I’m frustrated and lost in the lines, to be patient—to step back, to try again. The thing I’m drawing with my words might already be there, waiting to be uncovered.

Erin-1-042-4x5-rgb-240x300

Erin Thomas writes books for children and young adults from her home in Whitby, Ontario. She enjoys trying new hobbies on for size, but promises not to pursue a career in fine art. For more information, visit www.erinthomas.ca.
Draco’s Fire (HIP Books Fall 2009)
Boarder Patrol (Orca Sports Spring 2010).
Wolves at the Gate (HIP Books Spring 2011)
Overboard (HIP Books, Spring 2012)
Haze (Orca Sports, Spring 2012)
Roller Coaster (HIP Books, Fall 2013)
Forcing the Ace (Orca Limelights, 2014)