In July I wrote a guest post about finding your manuscript’s hook. The post was geared toward writers of all genres, with the tenet that even character studies can find a central conflict and thus construct an opening hook. The same is true for writing with tension.
Many people think that writing a character driven novel means that tension is secondary. Some people think that conflict is a commercial or genre tool. These ideas unfounded. Tension moves your novel forward and keeps your readers turning pages.
You don’t need guns or car chases to do it either. A few simple tricks will keep the conflict high.
- Make the most of your dialogue: keep dialogue fresh by introducing unlikely or unpredictable tension. Reference a conflict unknown to the reader, to be explained later. Hint at the future story.
“We’d been down this road before,” she said, her hair hiding her eyes. She was right, not like we didn’t spend most of our married days pretending we hadn’t. Pretending we’d never hurt each other. A lie is easy to keep up when everyone believes in it.
The easiest place to do this is dialogue. The characters all know each other better than the reader. Hint at currently unexplained emotion, back story conflict, or emotional turmoil. This works best if you can tie it to the main plot or sub-plot.
- I call this the third eye: let the reader in on the story before the characters. This is hard, maybe impossible from a single POV, but if you can dio it, it’s a great way to introduce suspense. If the reader knows an inevitable conflict is coming, it builds tension with each chapter that passes. Now will they find out? Maybe now? It’s quick cheat and might require some restructuring. But playing with timeline, POV, and reveal is a nice way to keep a reader invested even if you’re not writing a suspense novel.
Think of your novels secrets. Make a list of hidden information and mark them as minor, major and critical. It’s tempting to reveal them all linearly. It’s certainly easier. But if you think of flashback and timeline as tools, it becomes an interesting challenge to reveal your novels secrets at the most optimal time.
- Reveal pacing: go back to those list of secrets. There should be several minor ones and one central or critical one. The critical secret should play into your story’s climax. Now look at your chapter structure. If you are going three or four chapters without letting one of these secrets out, you might be losing your audience. Readers like to feel like they’re in on something. Alternate low tension chapters with these “secret” chapters. Your minor secrets can be dribbled out here and there. These are your character traits: your main character doesn’t like her mother in law, your mc’s boyfriend likes to party more than he lets on, your wife hates her husband’s secretary. Major secrets: your mc’s wife is having an affair, your mc always wanted to join the peace corps. Major secrets advance the plot but not always right away. Critical: your MC has cancer. A main character is silently battling mental illness. The best friend is actually a ghost. These are your novels main conflicts. The critical secret is revealed at the climax (75-85% in usually). But the minor and major ones are yours to parse. Choose wisely.
- End on a cliffhanger. Oh I know, you don’t write that kind of book. Blah blah blah. This is not just advice for thrillers. See those list of secrets? Whenever possible, end a chapter with one of them. Every major secret reveal is an opportunity to compel the reader forward. If you bury it among a description of the kitchen they’re standing in, you’re missing a chance for the reader to say: Oooooooh ok. Just one more. Until 1 am.
Liam didn’t know, it wasn’t his fault. I never choose this life. I was on this suburban freight train, packed full with play dates and PTA moms who balanced a double mocha cappuccino in one hand and an Apple martini in the other. My brain screamed everyday: you don’t belong here. I belonged in the peace corps, the jungles of Peru, the dusty villages of Sierra Leone, delivering clean water and sanitary napkins. It was my own fault really. I was trapped here, pinned down by the baby Liam had no idea I never wanted to have.
- Invest in your characters. There are no shortcuts here. The more detail you supply your reader, the more they feel like your characters are living and breathing people that they care about. It doesn’t matter how many tension-inducing tricks you use, if the reader doesn’t care about your characters, they are not likely to flip pages. Be diligent with your character sketches and wherever you can avoid trope, do it. Fully realized, complex chargers are an enormous amount of work. It’s the most fun and yet, most stressful part of writing a novel for me. Dig a level deeper than necessary. If your character is a trumpet player, don’t just research what that means on the internet. Go talk to trumpet player. Find out how the brass feels against their mouth. The edge of the horn against their thumb? How do they clean it, shine it? Why’d they pick that instrument? And finally how can you tie it to secret? Secrets are closely tired to character flaws because people inherently protect themselves. The deeper your characterization, the more secrets you’ll organically unearth.
Writing with suspense does not mean writing a suspense novel. It means introducing conflict and using the natural tension to your utmost advantage. It means turning character flaws into points of conflict and exposing a raw nerve of human nature.
And right at the nerve is where the best stories are told.
So, how about you, WITS readers? Have you ever tried any of these? Do you have any other tension tips for us?
Kate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of the women’s fiction novel, Thought I Knew You. Her second novel Binds That Tie was released in March 2014. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life.
She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like. Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.