I’m baaa-ack! Time for Writing Tips Tuesday! Sorry about the long delay. Today I’m talking about creating tension in a story. Without tension, your plot isn’t going to have the same effect on readers. And what I mean by tension is the feeling you get when your teeth clenches and your nerves are on edge and you’re scanning through the pages as quickly as possible to get to the end of a scene or chapter because you’re dying to know what happens. If someone says they feel this way about your writing, then–congrats!–you’re doing it right.
If you’re struggling to achieve that feeling, don’t panic! Just start at the beginning and think about it. What’s your story about? What happens to your protagonist throughout the story? Establish your plot and the kind of trials your character has to go through before you worry about tension. Then toss in the conflict.
Conflict is what drives a plot forward, especially when it’s directly related to your character. Emotional conflict is great for creating tension. Don’t be afraid to punish your protagonist, to push them to the end of their rope. The harder the problem is to solve, the better the tension will be.
Don’t be convenient with solving conflict, either. Don’t throw the ultimate power or weapon towards your character at the last minute to defeat the problem, or don’t completely brush the plot under the table once you reach the end of the journey. For example: having the villain change their mind about being evil, or a freak incident occurs that fixes everything. This destroys tension completely.
You should never slow the tension down. If things are progressing in a face-paced manner, you should continue that way, easing downhill when you’re ready. If you abruptly switch from insane tension levels to none at all, the story falls flat, the reader feels indifferent to what’s happening, and it completely throws everything off balance.
Excluding details about a character’s backstory is also a good way to build tension and suspense, revealing those details throughout the story. If you spout their whole life story at the start, it takes away the mystery and the excitement of finding out more later. Allow the reader to wonder, to know something is missing, before telling them.
Lastly, if you don’t have interesting characters–characters the reader will feel an emotional attachment towards–then tension will cease to exist. No matter how good the plot is, if someone doesn’t care for the characters, they won’t be interested in reading the book to the end. The more human your protagonist is, the more relatable s/he becomes, and tension will build naturally throughout the plot. For example: If your protagonist has trust issues and believes a friend to have betrayed them, that creates a serious amount of tension before they meet and fix the conflict.
Try to weave some tension into your plot the next time you crack open your manuscript. We love that stuff.