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Can you think of a moment in a novel or story when you lost all awareness of your surroundings? The only thing that mattered was happening on the page, and then at the end you come up for air and utter a “fuck.”
In reality, we don’t like a life full of tension. In fiction, however, the opposite is true. As readers we love stress and tension; we seek it out. When we read pages laden with tension a hormone is released into our bloodstream which stimulates the heart and increases blood pressure, in turn provoking an adrenal high. This excitable feeling is what readers crave.
But like most things, too much of it and you’ll get bored. That’s why, at this early point in the article, it’s important to set out the difference between suspense and tension. Suspense can span across chapters, an entire book even. Tension can last mere seconds or minutes.
Sol Stein in his book, On Writing, uses a good example to illustrate this. Think of tension as an elastic band. The more it’s stretched the looser and weaker it becomes until eventually, it snaps. Use too much tension and you’ll break the elastic band in your reader’s head.
How does a writer create tension?
Various ways exist to create tension:
- One way is to include strange, mysterious, or chilling facts. Sol Stein takes an excellent example from The Day of the Jackal by Fredrick Forsyth, which demonstrates how in one sentence tension can be conjured.
“It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.”
How did you feel reading this sentence? Did you want to know more? Did questions pop into your mind? Who is being executed? For what? Why that time of day? All of these questions create tension and encourages us to keep reading.
- Friction is another way to build tension. Situations which don’t go together, the clash of opposing forces.
- Dialogue is an effective method of creating tension. Confrontational dialogue can have readers turning pages faster than a man reading a magazine in an oncologist’s waiting room.
- Using tension early on in a book or story can allow the writer to take control of the reader’s emotions. You grip them with your words, and in exciting them they allow you to take them along on your adventure.
- One thing you can do to spark some tension is to move a specific sentence to another location. The purpose is to stretch out the tension as much as possible. Look at Stein’s example:
“I was heading over to Uncle Urek’s before I got your message. He in trouble again?”
A fog of silence descended. Nobody looked at anybody else. Finally, Feeney said, “She doesn’t know.”
How about moving one line?
“I was heading over to Uncle Urek’s before I got your message.”
A fog of silence descended. Nobody looked at anybody else.
“He in trouble again?”
Finally, Feeney said, “She doesn’t know.”
Notice the difference? Simple and effective.
Twist the knife
Once you’ve created tension, you do not want to dispel it immediately. Dangle the resolution in front of the reader’s nose, always just out of reach. Think of an incident, in life or one you’ve read about, where a pressing situation arises, but all of a sudden it’s over, the tension gone.
You hear a noise in the next room, but you know you’re alone in the house. The keys of the piano jingle inside. Your heart freezes, but you toughen your resolve and pull open the door. And the cat runs out. Bit anti-climactic.
How could the tension be prolonged? Could the character get a phone call, one they must answer, or does someone knock on the front door? They want to uncover what’s going on in the room, but not just yet.
Plotlines which create tension?
Thanks to Sol Stein for recommending these:
- Dangerous work is involved. A soldier on the front line; a space engineer repairing the outside of a ship. When writing this kind of story or scene, exploring the tiny details of the type of work involved increases tension.
- A deadline is nearing. You’ve got twenty-four hours, or the girl gets it. Deadlines are used in many clever ways. James Barclay used one in Noonshade, where a portal to the realm of dragons is inching open and the heroes must race to close it before hordes of fire-breathing man-eaters invade Balaia.
- An unfortunate meeting occurs. Someone from a character’s past reappears, perhaps an old enemy or lover. Or running into the wrong person at the wrong time.
- An opponent trapped in a closed environment. Stein gives a wonderful example here, which I’ll paraphrase: A lion has escaped its enclosure and chased a woman into a cellar storeroom. The ageing zoo ranger is the only one onsite with a rifle. When he arrives at the scene a younger man offers to take the rifle and the old man gives him it. As the pair are about to descend into the cellar the younger man begins shaking, his handling of the weapon reeking of inexperience. The ranger offers to take it back, and the younger man hands it over. At the head of the cellar stairs, the ranger hears the lion below, but can’t see clearly. Holding the rifle with one hand he takes out a torch. He struggles to balance both the rifle and torch, tries to hold the latter in his mouth, but it’s too big. As he puts the torch down the crazed lion bounds up the cellar steps.
In this example, Stein keeps on increasing the tension, stretching it out. First, the old man hands over the rifle, then the younger man hands it back, then the old ranger struggles to see into the cellar, then struggles using both rifle and torch, until at last the lion leaps. Wouldn’t it be so much more boring if he arrived, looked into the cellar and the lion jumped at him?
A few summary points:
- Always seek to stretch out tension. Remember the elastic band analogy. Stretch it out too much and it’ll break.
- Add steps or mini detours within scenes to prolong tension. Anything that keeps the end at bay.
- Use tension early on in a story to grab a hold of the reader’s emotions.
- Chilling language, dialogue, sentence structure, and conflicting or confrontational situations can all create tension.
If you enjoyed this article, why not stay in touch by signing up to my mailing list? Subscribers receive a list of 50 fantasy book reviewers, as well as a copy of This Craft We Call Writing: Volume One, a collection of writing techniques, advice, and guides looking at, amongst others, world-building, writing fight scenes, characterisation, plotting, editing and prose.