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.

Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca

Janus: the god of writing?

Janus: the god of writing?

Gwynn Scheltema

January is believed to be named for the Roman god, Janus. The first month of the Gregorian calendar, January replaced March as the first month of the Roman year, no later than 153 BCE.

As we’ve left behind 2016 and begun 2017, consider that Janus is, among other things, the god of time, beginnings and endings. His two faces look simultaneously to the future and the past.

Janus symbolized change, transition and motion. He presided over the progress of one condition to another, from one vision to another, and young people’s growth to adulthood, transition from savagery to civilization, from rural to urban space, from one universe to another. Janus oversaw the beginning and ending of conflict. As a god of motion, Janus caused actions to start.

He represented time, and was worshipped at planting and harvest, at births and marriages and deaths. He had a role to play in journeys and exchanges, gateways and thresholds.

Doesn’t that sound like a writer? I think writers are a lot like Janus, presiding over our fictional worlds.

So what can we learn from Janus?

Past and Future are connected

At any point in the writing of a story we need to be looking into the past and the future simultaneously. Even though action and plot are moving forward into the future, we need to be aware of our characters’ pasts or back story, because that is what drives all our characters’ quirks and traits and shapes the decisions they make.

The distinction between past back story and present, or future action and plot, is a cornerstone for understanding pacing. The plot and action is what moves the story forward and keeps the pace up (and the reader engaged). The moment you indulge in a flashback (back story; the past), your pacing stands still. Sure we learn things about the characters, but the storyline is momentarily halted. Stay in the past too long, and the reader will lose interest.

That’s not to say that backstory is not important. It is. It is the subconscious motivation that drives the characters’ present actions. The future unfolds according to the events of the past, and witnessing some of the past will help the reader understand why a character acts the way he does.

Beginnings and Endings are connected.

We all know that stories have a beginning, middle and end, but it’s more than that. Like Janus, we need to be aware of the beginning and end simultaneously wherever we are in the writing of the story. Everything is causal. Nothing happens without a reason.

Plotters write their plot beginnings with plot endings in mind. Pantsers freewheel the plot but know their character arc beginning and ending. At any point in the story the reader should feel that there is change afoot, that there is growth and discovery around the corner. Your reader should sense that at the end, it will have been worth the journey, and that the promise given at the beginning has been kept.

Duality in characters

The two-faced Janus reminds us, too, that our characters also have dual aspects. They are at once good and bad. Readers relate to villains who have redeemable qualities. Readers like heroes with flaws. It makes them rounded and believable, not cardboard.

A character arc is a progression from one condition to another: from shy to confident, from intolerant to tolerant, from angry to calm and so on. Cardboard characters have no arc. They are shallow and act without motivation, act only because the author needs them to. If the writer, like Janus, is aware of the character’s past as she writes the action and change of the future, then the character will be more developed. The reader will care what happens to the character and keep turning the page. And that’s what we all want.

So as we write, let’s remember Janus, this January and all year long. Our readers will thank us.

DID YOU KNOW

You can explore your inner Janus this April at Writescape’s Spring Thaw retreat. This all-inclusive getaway at Fern Resort on Rice Lake, Ontario, offers plenty of time to focus on character arcs, plot developments and flashbacks that don’t drag down your story. Gwynn and Ruth are on hand to give you one-on-one feedback on your work in progress. Registration is open now.