Tension – or ‘keeping the pages turning’

Tension in novels is usually constructed from the way characters – big and small – confront situations. Let’s focus for a second on two of those words: ‘constructed’ and ‘small’.

By ‘constructed’ I mean that each element of tension needs to be carefully thought through so that it adds intentionally to the story and doesn’t become a mere flight of fancy. If you can’t explain how an action or reaction informs the reader about something relevant to a character arc (see earlier posts on this term) or a plot twist then perhaps it shouldn’t be included.

As to ‘small’: it is easy to focus on what is happening to main characters and forget that small ones can play an important part in keeping the reader’s interest. Many novels use small characters as eccentric additions or comic relief to provide the reader with some relief from the main characters. Small characters, then, can be fertile ground for tense situations and shouldn’t be ignored.

Since I’m writing crime novels, I’ll concentrate on tension in that genre.

The easiest way to create tension in a crime novel is to kill someone off. The second easiest way is to construct a fight scene or the lead-up to a fight that stops short before it starts.

We expect this in crime but too much of it can work against the story. One of my (former) favourite crime writers – who I won’t name – killed off a dozen people in the first 48 pages of a book I stopped reading recently at that point. Virtually every chapter had the same structure ending in a killing or two (or three) and the whole thing just struck me as lazy.

Try thinking about the everyday tensions in your own life and compile a list of them. When was the last time you argued with your partner and how did the argument arise, progress and then end? Have you ever argued with your boss at work and, if so, what about and who had the upper hand and why? Can you remember rushing for an appointment and not being able to find your car keys or getting annoyed because the lawn mower just wouldn’t kick over? How did you feel each time?

I’m not suggesting that you necessarily use those occasions in your story. What I am suggesting is that you examine them as alternatives to the ‘body and blood’ type of tension so that you realize that tension can arise through dialogue, through mishaps, through petty annoyances – and these can be useful ways of keeping your readers turning the page of your novel without judging what you write as formulaic.

In dialogue, tension can be ignited with one word such as “Stop!” “No!” “Shit”. Everyday mishaps – and how they are handled – can reveal more about a character then a shootout. And petty annoyances are far more likely to resonate with readers than a fight scene in a bar.

Remember too that tension can be created through what some writers call a ‘cheat’: you lead the reader to think that something dramatic is about to happen but then reveal that all the assumptions were wrong and it was nothing at all.

Tension is critical to seizing and holding your readers’ attention. Once you’ve drafted your novel read through it again to make sure you have sustained the tension without overdoing it. A good test is to have someone read your draft where you ask them to indicate at what point(s) they started to lose interest or concentration. Go back to those points and check to see if you have dropped the attention to tension and, if so, whether you can add something in keeping with the story.

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