Eliem’s smile faded as something rustled in the woods. He slowed his horse, peering into the black shadows. Suddenly, an arrow swooshed from the treeline. He felt pain in his shoulder as his horse reared. He lost his grip on the saddle and crashed onto the road. Something buzzed in his head before he blacked out.
Well? Did it make your reader’s heart pound? Don’t you want to know what happens next?
Me neither, though at one time I wrote a paragraph very similar to the one above, and smiled with satisfaction. I mean, come on! It even had a cliff-hanger. It was sure to keep the reader turning the page for the next chapter and that was the most important thing, right? I knew the rule: Leave each chapter in an exciting spot when something happens to your character – though not too exciting because we don’t want my mom or my friend’s mom to think I’m a terrible person because bad things happen to my characters. I’ll just sort of imply the bad stuff and then move on to another part of the story.
There is a reason my first manuscripts haven’t been read in years. Page after page, I’d build up to a tense scene – and then in one paragraph, the tension would happen; within a page, the excitement was resolved, poor Eliem discovered, brought home and patched up by his ever-loving girlfriend.
Don’t worry, readers! He’s fine!
Oh, but you weren’t worried, were you? Let’s look at why.
- You don’t know Eliem from Adam. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Maybe he deserved that arrow.
- He wasn’t expecting the shot and neither were you. You had two sentences to register any sort of danger.
- Eliem feels pain. You don’t. And even you, the most empathetic reader, were given so little information, you couldn’t feel it even if you tried.
- Eliem is now unconscious. Which means this scene stopped as abruptly as it started. In one paragraph, I have introduced danger, implemented the most exciting part of this scene in two sentences, and now the story has stopped completely because our main character has no idea he just got shot.
- We just don’t care.
It’s a common problem for writers. Though I hope your scenes aren’t as badly executed as the story above, I’ll bet you’ve run into similar struggles; you have all the elements of what should be an exciting scene – and it just doesn’t work. Maybe you even have a book that has fizzled halfway through because you ran out of plot before it even got started. Every scene in your book that reads with lackluster prose or meanders without enticing interest, all boils down to the same problem; It lacks tension.
How to Use Tension in a Story
Tension is created by a lack of resolution. No matter if it is a subtle terseness between a husband and wife at odds with each other, a prisoner crawling across enemy grounds, or a contestant waiting to hear the name of the winner, the moment is delaying an outcome. The longer the delay, the more pressure builds in the chest of the participant and every onlooker. When you are writing a book, you must give the reader a satisfying resolution to the story you have been telling – but this scene is not the time to do it. Your character will have questions and problems; don’t answer or solve them right away – and for a few, don’t resolve at all; leave that thread for another chapter.
Let Them Feel Their Need
Tension is heightened by an unmet need. Define your character’s physical need, emotional need, and even core need. Then, instead of meeting that need, increase it. We all know the short-term consequence of having an arrow in your shoulder, but who is waiting at the end of Eliem’s delayed journey? What happens if he dies on the road? A scene with a husband who is secure in his wife’s love and is temporarily uncomfortable while she fumes reads very differently than a husband who isn’t sure he’ll gain her forgiveness or even if she knows what is going on. Find the smallest events in your story and draw them out, raise your character’s stakes, and leave them—and the reader—to wonder.
Engaging Your Reader’s Emotions
Readers are reading your book so they can experience the life and emotions of your main character. While in real life, we want to avoid unpleasant emotions, in a fictional world, we can feel without consequences. A reader wants to feel your character squirm, they want to feel their heart pound as their eyes skim the words, they want to pause before they turn the page because they can’t bear to know what happens – but they do turn it and they want to experience it in all its agonizing glory. Give your reader a chance to feel every emotion your character encounters, not just the pleasant ones.
This means you must be willing to feel it yourself.
Draw the Reader Onward With a Promise
After you have drawn out your character’s progress in this scene and allowed him or her to feel the full impact of emotions, inner conflicts and frustrated goals, let your character win whatever needs to be resolved in order to move on to the next chapter. But don’t resolve everything. If your reader is asking questions, let them know that the answers will come to those who read on. Drop hints if you can naturally work it into the storyline to clue your readers as to what may be the outcome, but if you have resolved something during this scene, make sure you have opened up another problem and left another question to be answered. Not every chapter needs a cliff-hanger – most don’t. But every chapter does need to leave the reader’s problem-solving brain without a vital piece of the ideal resolution.
How to Add Tension to Your Story
So now you’re getting ready to attack that lack-luster scene with a pen or delete key and find a way to up the stakes. You’ve played a scene so vividly in your head that your heart is pounding. But how do you write it down without losing the punch?
Paint the Page
The white space on a page can be just as powerful as the words filling it. A scene with more white space will create more of an impact than text filling every nook and cranny. Use the length of sentences to control the flow of the events in your scene. Even a one-liner or one word standing alone can create an emphasis that would have been lost by the same word nestled in the middle of a paragraph. Play with your white space and see which combinations add more punch to the actual text of your story.
Shorten your sentences.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not so the reader can skim the exciting parts and read faster. If you read anything like I do, you actually slow your reading during the exciting parts to draw out the tension on your own. Shorter sentences keep the reader focused on the action without lessening their emotional engagement with explanations or unnecessary words. You can also use the length of your sentence to control the pace of the scene, impacting the thoughts of the character as they process what is going on, reflecting fragmented thoughts or even a single word as the realization gives a gut punch to both character and reader. While longer sentences can be utilized to give vital information, make sure that your words are important to the scene and avoid anything that takes away from the emotional state.
Tension employs “picture” verbs.
A verb is good. A strong verb is better. But a verb that paints a vivid and instant picture in our minds is best. When you write your scene, get it onto the page however you can without breaking your flow. When you edit it, try to consolidate your sentences and take time to choose the most precise and vivid word to convey what you want your reader to imagine. A great exercise for this can be found here, using ideas and words you have collected in the visual part of your sensory journal.
Any scene can be heightened with tension, no matter if it is a conversation, a casual stroll, or an action scene. Subtle goals can be as powerful to drive a story forward as a life-endangering scene. Is there a scene in your story that you have gotten stuck on? Take a fresh look at your characters, their goals and emotions, and what is bothering them. Have you resolved things too quickly? Are you avoiding a scene because it is uncomfortable to write? Is your character facing high stakes if they don’t fight through whatever is causing the tension? Use the techniques above to add questions and conflict to your tale. Remember that tension = time. This is a great time to linger in your story, draw out the scene, and fully explore and feel the inner workings and outer stakes of your characters. Get into the scene with your characters, grapple with their fears, and leave the victory for another chapter.