Tension for your Readers

Tension. Without it, your novel falls flat. With it, you keep your reader hooked until the very last page. But sustaining tension is a tricky thing — even in one scene. Expanding that feat to an entire story can be especially challenging for first-time authors.

In working with clients, I often encounter moments that lack tension. By showing them a few tweaks, they’ve been able to turn a lackluster scene into a gripping one.

Here are three ways to keep the tension flowing in your novel:

Tension Trick 1: Withhold, withhold, withhold.

Information is powerful currency in your novel’s story world. Your job as author is to hold back from revealing information – until absolutely necessary.

Think about it: In a riveting murder mystery, the detective finds little nuggets of insight one piece at a time. If readers were to know too much too soon, later chapters wouldn’t have that key build-up or that big “Ah-ha” moment.

Even if you’re not writing a murder mystery or even a thriller, taking a close look at how key breadcrumbs of information are leaked to your reader can be a great way to chart how tension ebbs and flows in your story.

Try this: Lay out a list of all of the important information to be revealed throughout the course of your story. Does the majority come about before the halfway point in your novel? If so, try rearranging the plot to hold off some key bits of information until the last third.

Tension Trick 2: End chapters with a question.

Chapter endings are fantastic points for creating cliffhangers that compel your readers to turn the page. These moments don’t necessarily have to be life-or-death. They can introduce a character to a moment of danger, uncertainty, confusion or excitement.

For instance, say you plan to have a life-changing character suddenly enter your protagonist’s life at some point in the story arc. Putting that moment at the end of a chapter will cause the reader to wonder what will happen next — and read on further to find out.

Or, if your main character has a light bulb moment that leads to a turn of events, plan to position it at the end of a chapter.

Or, simply leave a question hanging. Even better: don’t immediately answer that question in the following chapter.

Tension Trick 3: Harness point-of-view.

You can also create tension within a scene by showing a contrast between what a character is feeling and what is happening around her.

Even if a character’s actions may signal to others that she is in perfect agreement, having her internal thoughts indicate she is conflicted will ramp up the tension.

For example, say your main character, raised in a bad neighborhood, has agreed to participate in a robbery with his friends. But, it’s the last thing he wants to do. If you show that conflict in his thoughts, readers will wonder whether or not the character will go through with it. — and will fear for his safety.

When writing a scene like this, ask yourself: How can what the character thinks and feels — but doesn’t reveal to others — create a subtle conflict that keeps readers on their toes?

What are your ideas for ramping up the tension in a novel? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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