How To Add Tension In Your Novel
Without tension, life will be a breeze. It could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how much stress you need to be excited with life. With novels and other fictional work, though, tension is the lifeblood. Without it, your story can end up downright sleepy.
Tension works with conflict to create arousal and excitement in novels, pulling the emotional hooks up the point that they engage the reader wholeheartedly. Used well, they force the reader to becomes invested in the story, keeping them glued to the book — line after line, page after page, and scene after scene.
There are many ways to spice up your stories with tension. We discuss some of the most common ones below.
Suspense relies on information. When the reader has more information about the dangers that face the protagonist than the character does, it lays the foundation down to create suspense. What actually builds the tension, though, are the constant reminders — events, dialogue and signs — of those dangers that appear throughout the narrative.
Good suspense stirs intrigue, making readers want to know how the situation actually plays out. Suspense makes you commit to the story, sucking you into the events that take place in it. As such, you want to know if the protagonist actually takes the right road or ends up making the wrong choice.
Add a time limit of some sorts to the story. This presents the protagonist with a pressure situation, requiring them to accomplish a goal or face the consequences. You, of course, play it up even more by placing unforeseen obstacles in their path, making the imposed deadline even harder to meet. Deadlines raise the stakes for your characters, creating mental tension, emotional tension and a sense of impending trouble.
Each time a character encounters a point of crisis, pace needs to speed up. That keeps the story vibrant and exciting. Once resolution sets in, then you can fall off into a leisurely pace — until the next crisis appears. Switching between modes this way allows you to give the reader a few relaxed moments, further highlighting the tension when the action flows thick. The slow moments, of course, have to dwindle down as the plot speeds up to the climax to maximize the tension during the most crucial moment of your story.
Surprises are very welcome for creating tension, provided it doesn’t come without context. When the path of the story appears clear, a surprising turn of events can be just what it needs to keep the succeeding events interesting. Just make sure the “surprise” isn’t a convenient excuse to resolve the protagonist’s troubles (classic example: the “it’s just a dream” twist) — cop outs are always a little too obvious and can end up making the reader feel cheated.
Make the main antagonist powerful and ruthless. I know it sounds cliché, but it almost always works for added tension. From the large corporation bullying the small plaintiff into dropping a suit to the rich father driving a wedge between lovers to the jock making life hell for the nerd, a powerful antagonist always makes for a worthy adversary. One worthy of the reader’s intense feelings of loathing, that is.
Make Life Hell
Tragedy and misfortune makes the world go ’round. At least, as far as stories are concerned. When things go too smoothly for your protagonist, there is no point of conflict and no challenge to really overcome. The solution is always to go the other route, making the life of your hero one that is laden with unsavory occurrences. Make the worst thing that could happen actually happen and watch your lead character dig out of that hole. An interesting protagonist is never sheltered from tragedy — in fact, they’re usually mired deep in it.
All superheroes have one weakness that makes them vulnerable. It’s a good rule of thumb for most protagonists — give them at least one big weakness to confront. While it can be a fatally allergic reaction to kryptonite, it can also be something more common, like a serious fear, phobia or source of anxiety. And then, keep putting them in situations where that weakness plays out.
Add External Events
Turmoil doesn’t just come from interactions between characters. You can add external circumstances and events to put layers of obstacles for your protagonist to clear. Natural disasters, disease, political events, wars and other situations far away from your character’s grasp can all be put to use to lend an extra source of tension for a story.
Characters shouldn’t be born the minute your novel started. Instead, they should have lives long before the first scene in your book — a past that you can use to give additional context to their actions and attitudes in the story. Previous failures and sources of disappointment are particularly poignant points as they can lead characters to become weary or fearful of certain things. Involve these in your story (as in, make their past haunt them), putting your protagonist in situations where the same failure could become a reality again.
Write your sentences as a mirror of your protagonist’s emotional states. If their heart is racing, write short, choppy text. If they’re casually going through their day, write sentence structures that linger and stay awhile. Doing so allows you to capture the tension in the way you present words, making the text a lot more complementary to the emotion of the story.
Every Story Is Different
Each story you write will require different kinds of tension, depending on the genre, the theme and the target audience. For instance, it won’t likely be appropriate to use the same stress points to create tension for a young adults mystery novel as you would for a romance book targeted at middle-aged women.
Always use a combination of the different tension builders to add emotional hooks to your stories, testing different ones to see how they play together. If you’re writing a novel, tension is non-optional — without it, readers are likely to get bored before they even get through the first chapter.