by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
Whether you’re writing a coming-of-age story, a serial killer thriller, a quilting cozy, a paranormal epic, a historical romance, or a children’s bedtime story, you want there to be enough tension to keep readers eagerly turning pages.
Donald Maass observed that people do this when they’re seeking relief from some kind of “apprehension, anxiety, worry, question, or uncertainty.” That means, even if you don’t want to make seven-year-olds feel uneasy before bedtime, you still want to make them curious.
And you want to sustain that curiosity -- that tension -- throughout the entire story.
This is the kind of curiosity that generates movie reviews about keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. These people can’t take a break because:
Will the Vikings prevail against the ocean’s fiercest storm?
Will the jealous ex show up before the long-awaited kiss?
Will the killer overhear the hostage signaling for help?
As writers, we need to raise questions. Leaving those questions unanswered -- whether they’re small ones that’ll be resolved in another few pages or big ones whose resolution will take until the end of the book -- is guaranteed to create tension within your readers.
And they’ll love you for it. (Oscar Wilde said of a story he was enjoying, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”)
Of course, the amount of tension will vary depending on your audience. Readers of different genres have different expectations regarding how much is over-the-top, and how little is yawn-worthy.
Keep in mind that the ultimate resolution of tension -- at which point your audience will feel satisfied even though they regret the story’s over -- has to wait until (yep) the end. Or very close to the end. Think of whatever question is resolved there as the dramatic focus of the story.
But this sure doesn’t need to be the ONLY source of tension in your book. You can pile on a whole lot more even while that big question is still pending. And if you’re not yet quite sure what your big question is:
If it’s a mystery, the question is generally “Will the mystery be solved?” (Justice is a nice outcome, as well, but that’s an even more prevalent question for legal thrillers: “Will justice be done?”)
If it’s a romance, the question is likely “Will they commit to living happily ever after?” For women’s fiction or coming-of-age, it’s pretty sure to be “Will this person come out better at the end?” For a thriller, “Will the good guys triumph?” And so on.
Since the answer to every one of those questions is almost always “Yes,” you might think it’d be difficult to sustain tension during the story. But the question your readers flat-out CAN’T answer (yet) is “How will this happen?”
So that’s what you need to answer as the story unfolds, bit by increasingly tense bit. Look at every scene and see how it contributes to the book’s (and the characters’) progress toward resolution. As long as they’re moving forward, it doesn’t matter -- in terms of building tension -- whether they succeed or fail in any given scene.
Sometimes things will turn out beautifully (until the next scene) and sometimes they’ll turn out horribly (until a few scenes later). Either way, you’re keeping your audience on the edge of their seats.
Because the best tension isn’t found in just a scene or two here and there.
It lasts even when things seem fine on the surface, with the characters happily roasting marshmallows in the park...because the reader still hasn’t gotten the ultimate reassurance that everything WILL be resolved.
And of course you can have dozens of smaller S.Q.s along the way, which will build even more tension. Not necessarily nail-biting, read-with-all-the-lights-on tension, but a sense of anticipation: what’s gonna HAPPEN?
We already know your character/s will have to struggle against something. Maybe it’s an enemy like the villain or the society they live in.
Maybe it’s an ally like their best friend, co-worker, parents, or team.
Maybe it’s a hostile environment, whether that’s nature or technology or the supernatural.
Maybe it’s themselves.
And it’s very likely more than just one of those entities. Anytime you’ve got uncertainty, you’ve got tension. Anytime you’ve got strain on the body, mind or heart, you’ve got tension. Anytime you’ve got a values conflict between or within people, you’ve got tension.
It’s a wonder anyone EVER gets a good night’s sleep, isn’t it? 🙂
But this is very handy for writers, because tension can arise from just about any situation. While your overall Story Question creates the longest arc, there can be all kinds of extra questions along the way that keep the tension building.
When you think of books that strike you as having an exquisite sense of tension, whether it’s “Will all life on earth be destroyed?” or “Will Jimmy win the blue ribbon?” you can usually see how this tension continued building throughout the story. And in fact, that leads to our:
And somebody who comments will win free registration to “Tick... Tick... Building Tension,” an August 7-18 email class on doing exactly that. On Saturday evening I’ll have random dot org draw a name and post it waaaaay down at the end of the comments. How’s THAT for building tension? 🙂
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After winning Romantic Times’ “Best Special Edition of the Year” 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 including the one at groups.io/g/Tension, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. With 50+ titles there so far, she’s always hoping for more.
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