by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN?
We might have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen in a story when we pick up a new book. Most of the time, we can judge that book by its cover – or if not, then by its reviews or word-of-mouth from friends.
Even if nobody else has read it yet, we feel fairly certain that a book showing a rancher and a schoolmarm in a chaste embrace will likely end with the couple getting married. Or a book showing a police badge and some crime-scene tape will likely end with the detective taking the killer to jail.
So if we already know the ending, how can there possibly be any page-turning tension along the way?
The only way it can happen is if the writer has used some great techniques to keep us wondering what’ll happen next. Even if we feel confident that the main Story Question will be resolved in the final chapter, what about all the other questions on the way to that final chapter?
That’s where you build the tension.
Maybe your character is facing a choice. Say, Allegra is torn between marrying Carrick or becoming a nurse. Or Jemmy can’t decide between the red or the yellow lollipop. Or Pat doesn’t know whether to rescue Hobson or Sophie.
How will they choose?
Or maybe your character isn’t sure what lies ahead. There are unsubstantiated rumors of danger. A friend might or might not have betrayed their trust. The long-awaited day could be sunny or stormy.
What to expect?
Maybe the reader suspects something, or knows something, that the character doesn’t. A surprise package is on the way. The supposed butler is actually the duke’s illegitimate son. There’s a terrorist planning to bomb the factory.
What’ll happen when the truth is revealed?
Maybe there’s some dissonance between the setting and the story line. A Wall Street trader is plunged into a war zone. A shy librarian has to seduce a raucous World Series pitcher during the seventh-inning stretch. A malicious wizard is disguised as Santa’s head elf.
Something doesn’t quite fit.
Those questions are just the beginning.
There are all kinds of situations that provide fertile ground for building tension. Just grabbing random titles off the past decade of Publishers Weekly lists, you can see the kind of story questions that keep readers intrigued in books like:
- Crazy Rich Asians
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid
- The Fault in Our Stars
- A Gentleman in Moscow
- Girl on the Train
- Go Set a Watchman
- The Goldfinch
- Gone Girl
- Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone
- The Help
- The Hunger Games
- Me Before You
- Where the Crawdads Sing
Some of the above story questions include...
Who will survive?
What will it take for them to survive?
Can they do it?
What’ll happen if they fail?
Is it worth the struggle?
Those are just a few sources of tension that build throughout these bestselling reads. Regardless of the audience or setting or characters or struggle at hand, the stakes are always high...for the characters, and thus for us readers.
And you’ll notice that while in some cases a life-and-death struggle is literally about avoiding the loss of life, it can just as well be a struggle to avoid the loss of social approval. Or of true love. Or of freedom, family, friendship, a favored outcome for a quest...or any such threats endangering not the main character, but those they love or their entire society.
When the stakes are high, so is tension.
Or at least, it SHOULD be. That’s where we get into techniques (beyond the classic “ticking clock”) for building it...sustaining it...increasing it...occasionally relieving it for a moment or two...and then bringing it back even stronger.
Those are what we’ll talk about next month in “Building Tension,” but you’ve already seen how some of your favorite authors do that. If you’re not on the edge of your seat over Jimmy’s choice of a red or yellow lollipop, that’s okay! Whatever writer uses YOUR favorite kind of tension is one who’ll have you turning pages long past midnight.
Which books have done that more than once?
The reason this matters is because it provides a hint regarding what kind of tension works best for you. That’s also the kind that’ll work best for your readers, because they’re the ones who’ll appreciate your style of writing...your storytelling voice.
Sure, readers also like wondering which of a character’s most valued people, or beliefs, or practices will matter the most. And what’ll happen if the character has to choose between Love or Prosperity, Justice or Comfort, Saving Their Child or Saving Their Continent?
Millions of characters have faced such compelling choices. But you sure don’t remember every single book in which a character had to decide between, for instance, Fairness and Kindness. It’s only a few that stand out as particularly engrossing. What stories are those?
Our prize-drawing question
Somebody who answers, with either the book title/s or a description of what contributed to the tension in a beloved story, will win free registration to my August class that goes into more detail on such contributions. And if your response contains something quotable, you might very well get credit for providing a Reader Opinion...so let me know if you’d rather stay anonymous!
[Laurie, figuring one less-than-expert way of building tension is mentioning that the winner will be announced this Saturday and I can’t wait to see whose name gets picked by random-dot-org.]
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After winning Romantic Times' “Best Special Edition of the Year” awards over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Since then she’s taught online and live workshops for writers from London and Los Angeles to New Zealand and New York, and keeps a special section of her bookshelf for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. So far there are 48 titles -- will yours be next?