Regardless of the length or genre of a story, creating tension is essential to holding readers' attentions. But what is the best way to add more tension to a story?
Often I see aspiring authors withholding information in an effort to be vague and cryptic, which only serves to frustrate readers instead of engage them. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the act of proving information to the reader — be it in the right place and quantity — that makes them curious enough to continue reading.
The whole point of storytelling is to share tales and you need people to read the whole thing in order to get your point and fully enjoy what you’ve created, but not even having a best selling book provides this guarantee. Data collected by Kobo from more than 21m users, showed that readers were more keen to finish Casey Kelleher’s self-published thriller Rotten to the Core than many award winning and best selling novels.
What does this show us? Creating and sustaining tension is the most effective way of keeping readers engaged and making sure they will read all the way to “the end” of your novel, and we want them to do that so they can fully experience and enjoy the wonderful plot and characters we’ve invested our time and souls to develop.
So, if withholding information isn’t the best approach to hook and keep readers, let’s explore how the delivery of information increases story tension by:
Creating story tension is about making promises to your reader regarding potential disaster, tragedy, misfortune or complications, making the outcome of the situation uncertain, and then drawing that uncertainty out for as long as possible.
When you don’t give readers a clear sense of what might happen if everything doesn’t go the character’s way, what they have to lose and why, they can’t possibly be invested in how the character struggles to prevent it.
Trying to be cryptic by withholding too much information only results in a vague future the reader can’t picture and therefore doesn’t care about, for example:
If the narrative focuses on a character, then continually referring to them by a deliberately vague title like “the stranger” only ends up sounding awkward. Tension isn’t decreased by naming the character because it is their actions and the way information is delivered that build the tension.
This isn’t the same as using misdirection or unreliable narrators effectively. Writers can deliberately lead readers to make wrong assumptions by planting false clues, but when a piece of information is deliberately left out of the narrative, it only serves to frustrate.
Curiosity is at the heart of building tension because humans are innately inquisitive. Once a mystery has intrigued us, we will persist to find the solution. For authors, this means raising questions in the readers mind, to pique their desire to know more, and then revealing the answers/solution gradually over time.
For example, if you show your character boarding a plane but give no reason for the trip or hint that it doesn’t go to plan, readers will lose interest. But if you provide just enough information to give context to the characters actions and hint that there is more at play than what we can see, then you immediately have an enigma to be solved.
Jane sprinted to Gate 12 just as the hostess was clipping a rope across the concourse entry, to close the flight.
“Wait! I’m here.” She waved her ticket in the air and put on a burst of speed. “Please - I need – to be – on – that flight.” She pressed a hand to her heaving chest.
The hostess frowned her disapproval, but sighed and pulled the rope aside. “We were just closing the flight.”
“I know and I’m so grateful for you letting me on. You don’t know how much this means to me.” Jane hefted the strap of her handbag higher on her shoulder and hurried down the concourse. There hadn’t been time for luggage.
See how I’ve provided the reader with concrete information in this example, but only enough to make them curious, so they want the next piece of information?
Maintaining a level of uncertainty throughout the story, makes readers worry about what is going to happen to the characters. First you must get the reader interested in the character, then show them what the character has to lose. Then spend the next 80,000 or so words making their chances of reaching their goals uncertain.
For example, a woman who is riding in remote countryside alone. If her horse bucks her off, it would be unpleasant, but you could increase the tension by providing uncertainty. What if her leg was broken or her horse ran away? Suddenly this goes from a bad experience to a potential disaster because the woman can’t walk to safety. The reader doesn’t know how this situation is going to turn out and that uncertainty creates the desire to continue reading to find out more. Voila! Tension.
In this way you can really eek out the drama and create repeated doubts in the reader’s mind.
By revealing just enough information to make readers curious and create uncertainty about the outcome of situations, you can lead them along a trail of breadcrumbs through your story and all the way to the end.
So, rather than withholding all the information from your reader, to successfully building tension you need to set reader expectations and then controlling the release of information, i.e. what you reveal and when, in a way that raises questions and creates uncertainty.
If you’d like to delve deeper into how to maximize tension in your story, join me for the Create Page-Turning Tension workshop.
Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there are a courageous heroine and a dead body. She writes romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US and empowers modern writers to produce novels they can be proud of (and that get noticed by agents and publishers).
Sandy is an experienced course presenter with a decade of experience in the industry, and prides herself on providing a nurturing learning environment that enables participants to truly absorb the material and apply it to their own work.
In her spare time, Sandy composes procedures for high-risk industrial processes, judges writing competitions, runs The Fearless Novelist Facebook group, and offers coaching and critiquing services.
Also connect with Sandy on Facebook and YouTube.
© 2021 Margie Lawson, all rights reserved.