A few days ago, I posted a question on Instagram about how other authors add tension to their stories. Most of the responses that I got went something like this:
-Identify what you character wants
-Then, use what your character needs as an obstacle to keep him/her from that want
Sounds simple enough, right? In theory, yes. But when it comes to actually sitting down and crafting scenes and plots that have tension, what do you do? Well, whether you’re trying to create tension that is romantic, mysterious, or anything in between, there are number of ways (this is NOT an exhaustive list) that you might try to do that.
Below are some things you might to try in your story, along with some examples from well-known novels.
1. Changing POV
This one is super simple if you are writing from multiple perspectives and it can happen at the end of a scene or chapter, which makes it pretty flexible. Basically, when you leave one character and instead take the narrative to a different character (maybe a different world or country, at the very least a different interpretation of what is going on), it creates tension because your reader will want to know what happens next. This is really fun to do, especially when you end a scene dramatically, like a gun going off, or in the middle of an argument, and then cut to something else entirely. When done well, you can leave your reader hanging (in a good way), giving them time to think the worst and driving them forward.
However, you have to be careful not to go from something riveting to something incredibly dry or a perspective that readers really dislike. If you do it right, you can transition from storyline to storyline, ramping up each one, leaving off, and then picking back up later to push your reader forward.
In Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J. Maas, she uses her almost 1,000 page series finale to balance a huge cast of characters and a ton of different plot lines, many of them starting off in different corners of the world. When you read a chapter from Dorian’s POV, and then jump to Aelin or Aedion, we are left hanging on to Dorian’s thread and must push on to find out what happens to him next. Maas does this really well in that we never really feel like we’re picking up a “dead” thread because she leaves us just enough hope at the end (or dread) to know that the wait will be worth it.
2. Make it confusing
You’ve probably heard about an unreliable narrator before, but basically it is a character whose lens is the lens we see the story through. However, this character may not be entirely trustworthy in the way that he or she represents themselves, the world, or other characters. It makes it hard for readers to tell what can be taken at face value, and what should be taken with a grain of salt. Similarly, you can add that sense of interesting confusion by creating scenes that are hazy around the edges, or a character who is experiencing something with their thinking “blurred” in some way by injury, alcohol, etc.
One of my favorite examples of this comes from The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle. In one of the scenes, the characters throw a party and the chapter is told in fragments and bits and pieces, not a cohesive thread to follow. By doing this, readers are able to see the important things that happened, but are not sure what to believe and what could be an alcohol-induced vision. Also, this scene comes at a pivotal point in some of the characters’ relationships, so the indirect way that we get some answers in this chapter actually end up raising more questions.
3. Leaving off on a question
Whether stated or implied, when you leave a chapter or scene with an unresolved question, the tension rises. Sometimes the question is “Is (character) dead or alive?” or “Which character got shot when the gun went off?” But other times, the question is something as simple as “What does that text from Character B mean?” or “Is going to say ‘hi’?”
One example of this is at the end of The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien. While this is a pretty dramatic example, we are left with questions like “Is Frodo dead?” and “What will Sam do now?”
4. Raise the stakes
This is a pretty generic term in storytelling that basically means make the consequences steeper. Add more. Make it bigger. And so on. It is really easy to think that breaking out the life or death situation is the perfect way to add this type of tension, but it doesn’t need to be that big, especially not if you’re only in the first act and you’re still wanting to add more tension in the rest of your book. It’s pretty hard to come back from a death threat and still retain a sense of genuine tension if you keep playing on that same fear. But not all characters fear death, or at least you shouldn’t threaten them with death in order to really create tension.
Take The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example. In one of the chapters, Gatsby is convinced that it is the time to tell Tom that Daisy is leaving him because she is madly in love with Gatsby and always has been. However, we see Daisy teeter back and forth between the confession and sticking to her status quo. The stakes here are raised for both her and Gatsby. For Daisy, this would mean a divorce, the loss of her high society lifestyle, and more. For Gatsby, if this moment doesn’t work out (although he is confident that it will), everything that he has done, dreamed, and built his life on the past years since meeting Daisy will mean nothing. Neither of these characters would die if worse came to worst here, but the tension is intense. We, as the reader, can see just how much they both have to lose, and understand that Gatsby, at least, is going into this situation at a disadvantage. The stakes have been raised from having fun together and “playing house” to life-changing decisions.
5. Speed things up
Speeding things up in your story will almost always work to bring tension. I mean, as a writer, what’s more inspiring than a looming deadline to get those creative juices flowing? The same thing works in your story. If you set things in motion, and then put a timer on it (I’m looking at you, action movies with bombs in them), things will start to heat up on their own. Just knowing that your plot and character involve obstacles is good. Making those obstacles things that have to be overcome in just 24 hours? Cue tension.
If you’ve ever picked up a Rick Riordan book, like The Lightning Thief, you know that Riordan is a big fan of this one. In that first book, the whole plot takes place within a two week span. And it isn’t just because Zeus said, “I’m planning this cool party and would like my lightning for a stellar light display,” (but that could work as a deadline in a different kind of story), it is literally, “if I don’t get this back by this day….WAR!” Like I mentioned in the parentheses here and other points above, you still have to figure out what the deadline for your story needs to be. What will make your characters worried? Or act out of desperation to accomplish?
This is one that I love, especially in YA or coming of age stories. The reason is, it’s so true to life. Imagine yourself in years past, thinking about something that is going to happen soon. Maybe its a party, or graduation, date night, buying a car, or even getting your paycheck. You may daydream about what outfit to wear, or maybe what the new leather will smell like, or, hey, even just the financial security of paying your light bill this month. But then– it doesn’t work out. Maybe you get paid, but not as much. Or the party you are excited about is cancelled. Or when you go to walk across the stage, they forget to say your name. Building something up in a story by having a character anticipate it like this always ramps up the tension for me as a reader because I know something will probably go wrong, that’s just the nature of storytelling.
In Stephanie Garber’s Caraval, the main character Scarlett has been corresponding with her betrothed, only known as the Count. In the letters that they’ve exchanged, she has enough to believe that he is the man of her dreams, that he will take her from her abusive father and give her a life of happiness. I’m not going to spoil anything, but you can bet that the Count shows up later on in the book and we get to see the reality and compare it to Scarlett’s anticipated version of her husband-to-be.
This one is always fun for me to read. It’s like a slap in the face, in a….good way? Anyways, this one can be the opposite of the one above, where a character is really uncertain about something in the future and their anxiety can translate to over-emotional actions and irrational fears. But, it can also be done by diverting the attention to something in order to bring it back in the end and bite you for not paying more attention to it (thus, the slap that you….like?). What one character focuses on is totally dependent on that character, and sometimes you need to take advantage of the misdirection that that allows you to have with the reader.
The best example of this that I can think of is from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. We spend the first little bit with Katniss and are introduced to her family and lifestyle along with information about the games. We are horrified to see how many time her name and Gale’s will be in the Reaping because of how the provide for their family. And then, when Effie calls out the name, it is none other than Katniss’s sister, with her measly one entry. I mean, what are the odds?! But by diverting our attention with Katniss’s uncertainty and anxiety, it is a shock when we all realize that even though Prim should have been “safe” maybe we should have been worrying about her a little more after all.
Last but not least, there’s the good ol’ interruption scene. Think of almost any sitcom or soap opera and there’s probably a “caught in the act” scene where one (or more) characters are caught, sometimes in the worst possible way, by someone interrupting their scene. But it doesn’t always have to be a jewel heist broken up by the haphazard security guard who finished his rounds five minutes early. It can be as simple as a secret being shared only to have someone new walk into the room.
One of the recent examples that I’ve seen of this strategy is from Cassandra Clare’s Lord of Shadows. Two characters are able to live out their secret passion and love for one another away from their “real” lives and are enjoying the blissful secrecy of it. But, when a concerned warlock shows up and interrupts their little love shack (not mid-shimmy, mind you), it brings reality slamming back into their lives. This is a great way to give characters, and readers, the feel for the “what if” factor, but then to take it away like the Grinch stealing Christmas all over again which makes us all just realize that “yes, we want the ‘what if,’ so give it back!” And we will keep going and reading to see if it ever happens.
Whew! That was a lengthy one. But I hope it was helpful in some way. Keep in mind that these don’t all work for every story, so be choosy and see what works for yours. Also, they can be interwoven and used together to continually ramp up the pressure and tension in your story in a number of ways that keep your reader interested and your characters fuming.
If you’ve got other ideas, please comment them here or on my original Instagram post about tension to keep the conversation going!
Until next time, happy writing, friends!