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.
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.
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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