Writers in the Storm

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March 20, 2024

Beguile Your Readers with Tension, Suspense, and Conflict

by Lynette M. Burrows

Photograph of a frightened boy up held up against a red brick wall by a person in a green sweatshirt whose fist is about to punch the boy.

Mastering the elements of tension, suspense, and conflict in your stories requires that you recognize the difference between them. Last month, in Part I, I discussed the definitions and gave samples of each. This month, we’ll dive deeper into the role of each of those elements in a story and techniques to develop them in your work.

If you recall from Part One, tension is the feeling of uncertainty or anticipation. Readers expect a certain level of excitement via anticipation in the stories they read. In a thriller or a horror novel, the anticipation/tension levels are high. It’s different in a memoir or romance, but there is still tension.

To elicit the right amount of tension in your story, it’s usually best to develop tension in more than one aspect of your story. 

In the Characters

Tension in your point of view characters, including the protagonist, often creates the strongest emotional reactions in your readers. The tension between their internal needs and their external needs can create great sympathy. This is especially true if each of those needs, whether “good” or “bad,” are of equal strength or desire.

Between Characters

Another place for great tension is between characters. This is part of why HEA romances appeal to readers. There is tension between the two love interests. Often there is tension between them and other characters as well. When the reader “sees” what each character desperately desires and how that desire conflicts with the other characters, it creates tension in the reader.

Unachieved Goals

An unachieved desire creates tension in both your characters and your readers.

Unreliable Characters

There is a possibility of another tension if you have written an unreliable narrator. Making your narrator unreliable will make the reader always question, do I believe him this time or not?

Deep Point of View

Show what the character is thinking and how her emotions affect her body, her thought process, her actions, and her dialogue. Give her conflicting emotions. Give her both pride at winning but guilt for being able to afford the fees when her best friend couldn’t. Make the reader wonder whether she will resolve those feelings.  

Have her feel one thing and act or speak in a contradictory way. Your reader will expect that contradiction will come back to haunt her. 

Use the character’s five senses. Instead of a sweet smelling rose, it can be sickly sweet, or the smell of decay. Food can turn dry and tasteless or turn sour on the stomach.

While the five senses are important, don’t forget visceral reactions. The gut-feeling or the chill that spiders down the spine are among the visceral reactions you can use to increase tension.

Slow vs Fast Burn

Vary the pace at which you reveal information and how you build tension. Sometimes a slow burn is the most effective at raising tension between two characters. The romance in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is a slow burn that some readers adore. Some readers prefer a faster pace where the tension is in how they will get together instead of if they will. This is true of most fiction. Mystic River by Denis Lehane (book and movie) slowly builds atmosphere and chilling tension. In No Country for Old Men, the tension begins in less than three minutes. 

Shorter is Better

Short words give your sentences punch. A series of short, choppy sentences create a staccato sound. That staccato sound changes the reader’s brain. She takes in those sentences more quickly. A run of staccato words gives movement to your story. 

The short story, “It’s a Good Life”, has a great example of this.

Anthony came into the room.

Pat stopped playing. He froze. Everybody froze. The breeze rippled the curtains. Ethel Hollis couldn’t even try to scream she had fainted.

It’s a Good Life,” Jerome Bixby

Dialogue

When you employ all the levels of dialogue, you can control the tension from mild-mannered to explosive. Use the weight of what the reader knows and the characters do not to increase the reader’s tension. Choose words that convey your character’s education levels, their social skills and emotions.

Use Subtext

The right words can imply innocence or hidden feelings or thinly veiled threats.

 A masterful example is this is in The Great Gatsby where Daisy, now married to Tom, visits her long-lost love, Gatsby, for the first time after he gained his wealth. He’s showing her all his linen and silk and fine flannel shirts that his man in England sends him. 

 Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The reader knows Daisy isn’t crying over the shirts. 

Things left unsaid between characters is another way to create tension.  

In Scenes and Story

Be certain to include tension in every scene. That’s right, every single one. Your reader will need to know what will go wrong? What will go right? Varying the levels of tension (internal vs external), the causes of the tension (between characters, inner, situational, etc), and the magnitude of the tension helps create the movement of your story.

Finally, make sure tension exists in the overall story. Give the reader reason to believe the climax will resolve the overall story problem presented (or hinted at) on the first page. This means the overall story problem must be big enough or complex enough to last until that climax. If your story is complex, you may need to remind your reader of this problem from time to time. 

Suspense encourages the reader to expect something risky or dangerous is about to happen. They speculate, theorize, and try to predict the story’s outcome. The uncertainty you inject into your story keeps your reader invested in reading to discover how it ends. It creates questions in the reader’s mind. Questions the reader’s brain compels her to answer. (Read Part I for the science behind this compulsion.) Questions that keep the reader reading and guessing. 

Have you found it difficult to create suspense in your stories? If you’re too heavy-handed with suspense, your story will read like an overblown melodrama. Too little suspense and your reader grows bored and doesn’t finish your story. So how do you learn to create the right amount of suspense? Like most things in writing, it isn’t as easy as it looks.

First, remember the thing that distinguishes suspense from tension is the amount of risk. You must set up your character’s desires and goals so that the reader understands that no matter how trivial or life-altering the desires and goals are, the cost of not getting them is of utmost importance to your character. 

Borrowing from terms from scriptwriting to label the techniques for creating suspense in your stories. We’ll talk about how you can “Controlling the Scene,” “Build Emotion,” “Take It to the Extreme,” “Use the Entire Shot,” and “Take Your Time. “

Control the Scene

Photography looking down a long pedestrian suspension bridge that disappears into the fog.

In scriptwriting, the idea of controlling the scene usually means using sound to build the suspense. A musical score, a ticking clock, the rush of water, or the roar of flames kick the reader’s need to know how this ends into high gear. But in writing fiction, we don’t have to rely on sound alone. Use all the senses.

Setting is more than what you see. Setting includes the layout of the setting, the mood of the setting, the lighting, the scents, and so much more. Choose to show details to the reader that increase the uncertainty of your character’s situation. 

Don’t read uncertainty to mean only fear. Play with a reader’s uncertainty by challenging her expectations. Misdirect her attention to some important detail the character interprets incorrectly. Make the uncertainty fun sometimes and more challenging other times. 

You are the creator of this world. Think about the details of your scenes in terms of what things will make the character react in ways that increase the suspense for the reader. 

Build Emotion

The setting can set the mood, but for it to be effective, the character must react to the setting. In films, closeups of the actors’ faces reveal much of the emotion of a character. In writing, you need to let your readers inside your character’s head and body. But be careful of too much too soon.

Start Small

If it’s a creepy swamp, start with smaller emotional reactions like a case of the nervous giggles that gets on another character’s nerves. Build to a jumpiness at every sound. Riddle your character with goosebumps and the thudding heart that will fill your reader with foreboding. Let the reader in on the self-talk going on in her head, trying to keep her calm. Then spring some action on her that causes her to panic. 

Building emotion can happen with positive emotions, too. A friendly smile makes your character feel welcome. Later a helping hand sets her skin to tingling. Maybe she tries to ignore how this person makes her feel. But the more she tries to ignore it, the more tongue-tied she gets. 

You can use the small to big pattern over and over again for any emotional reaction. 

Having difficulty showing instead of telling? Whether you need the small emotions or bodily changes or the big emotions and the dramatic physical cues to those emotions, I highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi (I’d recommend this invaluable book even if Angela and Becca were not good friends to Writer in the Storm.) 

Take It to the Extreme

In films, this phrase usually refers to camera angles. Instead of always filming from a standard eight feet away, zoom in for a closeup, or zoom out for a wide shot. Writers of fiction don’t have film cameras. But we can use viewpoint characters to create a similar effect.

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has some of this effect. The reader knows Juliet has taken a potion to fake her death, but poor Romeo does not. Though the reader may already know the ending or guess it, she follows him frantically race to her side, hoping somehow he’ll discover the truth before it’s too late. 

The converse can also increase the suspense in a story. In the “Tell Tale Heart,” a single detail, the beat of the heart, builds the suspense. 

 “…the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!”  

“Tell Tale Heart,” Edgar Alan Poe

Use the Entire Shot

Give your reader enough information to allow suspense to build. Create a foreground, a middle ground and a background for each setting. That will give your characters a “real world” in which to interact. 

Know where your character stands and how she moves around the physical obstacles in each setting. Have a working knowledge of how her culture works or doesn’t work. Know how educated she is, what terminology or jargon she’s accustomed to using. 

You won’t include every detail in your story. Still, you need to know these things so that you write the character’s reactions as if she and the setting are real. Give her a piece of furniture that she always bumps into in the dark. Give her a tradition or a habit she follows every time she enters this room. Use those details to give both normalcy and suspense to your story.

Take Your Time

Certain stories, like Fahrenheit 451, build suspense from the very first line. 

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Some stories need a slow buildup of suspense. In the Disney animated, Little Mermaid, 1989, the story begins slowly showing us how Ariel is obsessed with all things human.

Never be in a hurry to the payoff. Let your character have a moment of peace, linger on a touching detail, or a moment of dread. Think of suspense in a story like a drip that builds a bigger and bigger pool. 

Use all the tools of writing to ratchet up the tension bit by bit and your readers will exclaim that they couldn’t put your book down. 

Robert McKee says in his book Story, “Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.” With rare exceptions, conflict makes our characters move out of their everyday situations into more extraordinary ones. The outcome of the conflict matters deeply to our characters (these are the stakes of the story.)  Because the outcome matters, the conflict and hoped-for outcome shapes the decisions and actions of your characters.

When your readers find a connection with your characters, the conflict that matters to your characters matters to your readers. Therefore, the choices our characters make in the face of the conflict or obstacle is what our reader finds interesting and or entertaining. 

There are more ways we can thwart or oppose or endanger a protagonist’s goal than we can cover in this blog post. Depending upon who you ask, there are five to seven basic types of conflicts in stories. You can use the basics: man vs. self, man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. technology, and man vs. supernatural to help guide what your story will be about. There are also levels of conflict: global, local and inner conflict. Types and levels are helpful in creating conflict, but these are broad strokes and many of us, especially those who avoid conflict, need more detailed help in creating conflict in our stories. 

As the author of your story, you need to create obstacles for your characters no matter how much you love them. Remember, obstacles are anything that keeps your protagonist from her story goal.

20 ways to create obstacles for your characters:

  1. Develop a stronger antagonist. In Disney’s Little Mermaid, Ursula has the power to take voices and souls of people to accomplish her goals. 
  2. Threaten someone or something your character loves. A threat that exists in both Rear Window and The Greatest Showman. 
  3. Create conflicting groups. The Greatest Showman does this with the upper class vs the performers in Barnum’s circus.
  4. Keep your character from getting close to something she loves. 
  5. Push the antagonist and protagonist together. This happens in all three example movies. Ariel has scenes with Ursula. Jeff faces the murderous neighbor and Barnum uses his family and then Jenny Lind in his attempts to be accepted by the upper class.
  6. Make the character suffer. Often, this takes the form of making your character choose between two equally bad or equally good options. 
  7. Cause misunderstandings. Think about your own life and the misunderstandings you’ve had. These can be minor or major obstacles for your characters. 
  8. Create a power struggle. Power struggles can be personal, within a family, within a work situation, or more global.
  9. Use competition. Whether your character wins or loses, make it something your character needs to do.
  10. Families are complicated. Make your characters struggle with family bonds and conflicts. 
  11. Create complications and consequences, especially unintended consequences.  
  12. Give your protagonist a weakness that is her fault. 
  13. Put your character at a disadvantage. This could mean being in a wheelchair like Jeff or being unable to speak like Ariel.
  14. Put your character in a perilous situation. Perilous can mean her life is in danger like in the Little Mermaid and in Rear Window, but it can also mean she will lose relationships or integrity, as happens in The Greatest Showman.
  15. Give your characters secrets they don’t want anyone else to know. Secrets they’ll go to extremes to protect create all kinds of conflict.
  16. Give your character a prior wound. When writers talk about wounds, we usually mean internal wounds, but there can be physical wounds as well or in tandem.
  17. Use your character’s strengths against her. Jeff’s curiosity is a strength for a photographer but gets him into trouble when all he does is watch his neighbors.
  18. Turn her success into failures. Ariel is successful in becoming human, but she’s a human without human social skills and without a voice. 
  19. Make her make disastrous decisions. These types of decisions often come from the character’s weakness or flaw. But it can be for any of the above reasons as well. 
  20. If you’re still struggling for conflict ideas, ask yourself, how can my antagonist make things worse for my protagonist? What would “hurt” the protagonist most? 

Bonus: Re-watch your favorite movie (in the same genre you write) and figure out what obstacles create conflict for the protagonist for additional ideas.

Photograph of a violinist balancing on a tight wire outside of a building with the address 11-19 Wine Street.

We’ve all been told that no matter what you write, it will be a unique story because of your voice. The same is true in creating tension, suspense, and conflict in your story. The way you do it will differ from the way another writer does it. And it often is different with each different story you write. It’s one of the frustrating and exhilarating parts of writing. You create your own story recipe by balancing the tension, suspense, and conflict. In isolation, you can add too much or too little of those. This is why Beta Readers are vital. They will give you reactions so you can diagnose which of a story’s ingredients you need to re-balance. A story with a balance of tension, suspense, and conflict will spur your readers to turn the pages and eat up the stories you write. 

Your turn. What techniques or tips do you have for creating tension, suspense, or conflict in your stories?

* * * * * *

About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie wrangler. She survived moving seventeen times between kindergarten and her high school graduation. This alone makes her uniquely qualified to write an adventure or two.

Her Fellowship series is a “chillingly realistic” alternate history in 1961 Fellowship America where autogyros fly and following the rules isn’t optional. Books one and two, My Soul to Keep, and  If I Should Die, are available everywhere books are sold online. Book three, And When I Wake, is scheduled to be published in late 2024.

Lynette lives in the land of OZ. She is a certifiable chocoholic and coffee lover. When she’s not blogging or writing or researching her next book, she avoids housework and plays with her two Yorkshire terriers. You can find Lynette online on Facebook or on her website.

Image Credits

Top image by mallgoth from Pixabay

Middle image by Maria from Pixabay

Final image by Denis Doukhan from Pixabay

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