It’s true! But they also want a great story! And tension is a way to keep them with you all the way.
One of the things I find when I’m judging comp entries is that aspiring authors often confuse tension with pacing or with action. Too much pace with no breaks or undulations will certainly cause tension – but the wrong kind of tension. In short the kind that either lands your book against a wall or your reader in the ER. Ditto for action. With regards to these gently, building and appropriate placing are the keywords. And sure, while both can help maintain the tension in your novel, they aren’t the tension.
So, how can you build tension? Below are six things I’ve used that might help.
- Create characters that the reader connects with.
Once your reader has formed a connection with your character, tension is already built into that relationship. Think about someone you love or care about. Now think about something bad happening to that person. Or them being in conflict with another; a conflict that causing them great pain and anguish; impacting on their life… Is your heart beginning to beat faster? A tightness around your chest? Pressure building in your head? No, put the phone down. You’re not having a heart attack. (I hope!) What you’re experiencing is building tension. It’s the same with our stories. If we’ve created characters the reader readily empathises with, then the more we torture them, the more the reader worries and the more tension we build.
- Keep the stakes high
A simple and long held equation for ‘story’ is:
Goal, Motivation and Conflict or WHAT, WHY & WHO.
Broken down this means: WHAT does your character want? WHY does your character need this? WHO (or what) is preventing them from getting it?
Next of course we add HOW – as in ‘how’ do they overcome this – and we have story.
There is always something at stake when you write a story. It might be the achievement of a life-long goal; the uncertainty of a love relationship; protecting a property that’s in danger of being lost to the family or protecting a child or sibling – or even a parent. It could be needing to clear your name. It could be the strength to survive or to gain freedom. It could be anything. That’s not the main point. The main point is that it must be BIG. And it must be plausible. And not achieving it must come at a price. A huge price. This is teetering on the edge of a precipice tension.
- Raising the stakes.
Tension in your stories isn’t static. It moves. It swells and abates. And swells again. And each time it swells, it rises higher.
Ian Irvine says of tension: You can either raise the prize for succeeding, or raise the price of failure – or, preferably, both at the same time.”
And you keep raising those stakes. Just when the reader takes a sigh of relief because some of the obstacles have eased, ramp it up. And ramp it even higher.
- The Fear Factor
Fear is a great tension builder. When I workshop young or new authors I have them do a character profile. I’m not so interested in the basics such as looks and how many siblings they have etc, as I am in what lies underneath. One of those questions they answer in the profile concerns the character’s greatest fear. Greatest fear. Once you have that answer you have a potential part of your plot – because one of the best ways to build tension in your story is to have that character face that fear. What is your greatest fear? The one that brings you out in a sweat or paralyses you to the spot? Think about facing it.
How much tension are you feeling now?
Everybody has those fears. Every one has doubts. Your character has those fears – and doubts – so use them!
- Add a ticking clock
Nothing builds tension faster than a deadline. If you don’t get the ransom to the dognapper by 12 midnight, the dog bites the dust. Again, take this back to your own life. What’s it like in your house in the morning as you scramble to get out the house to get to work on time? Maybe you’re super organised – in which case skip this. But if you’re like the majority of people, it’s madness. You have one eye on the clock; you’re running from point to point. You’re doubling up on yourself because you keep forgetting things in your haste. It gets worse: The dog has hidden one shoe. (In which case, reconsider the ransom payment?) The child has remembered the assignment is due today. You’re at screaming point. By the time you’re out the door you feel like you’ve done a day’s work. Right?
Again, this is tension. Any movie, book or show (Twenty Four?) we watch or read, that has a deadline element has automatic tension built in. And if you do it well, the reader won’t be able to look away.
6. Match the setting to the mood
If you’re building more than emotional tension – or not – use the elements to help build the mood. Make it as difficult for your character as possible. Always. For example is there’s evil afoot or if it’s a dark scary moment, ensure your setting and weather support that for you. A problem in the daytime is a heap less scary or worrying than one at night when you’re alone. Or when it’s raining. Or storming… Wind howling. And the shutters are rattling and the trees are scraping the windows…
I’m sure you could research and find a trillion other ways to build tension and – most importantly – maintain it. But I hope these six points are of some use. I can feel my BP already beginning to rise as I await your responses…
Multi award winning author Kaz Delaney has published 72 novels for kids, teens & adults over a 20 year period, many of them published in several languages. Thirteen are YA novels and every one features a romance. Her latest is The Reluctant Jillaroo, Allen & Unwin, 2016 . She is repped by JDM Management.