Tension is the part of a novel that makes the story memorable and is guaranteed to keep your reader frantically reading until the very last page. Whether or not the author uses this element of storytelling could be the difference between a "just OK" book or one that keeps you on the edge of your seat. All of my favorite books have used different forms of tension to hook readers and their techniques have sucked me right in. While there is no strict formula that every author should use, here are few ways to build tension in your own novel.
Include a Ticking Clock
No, I don't mean literally to write about a clock. Although, many find the sound of a ticking clock very alarming and it can make people physically tense. But in terms of storytelling, countdowns of any kind can make your writing all the more exciting. If your main character doesn't accomplish their quest by a specific time, something terrible will happen. For instance, if the fantasy hero doesn't defeat the villain, the world will be conquered. Or, if the Western cowboy doesn't stop the train robbery, the little town will lose millions of dollars. Although the stakes might not be huge, the "terrible thing" that occurs should be personal to the character involved. In other words, failing to stop a train robbery might not mean the end of the world, as seen typically in sci-fi or fantasy genres, but it should feel that way to the protagonist. Deadlines also make us act differently and they should force your character into making some rash decisions. In real life, deadlines pressure us into working harder and making irrational decisions because we're not thinking clearly. Think back to when you were in school. How did you act when that massive term paper was due the next day? The more irrational your main character, the more tension there is in your story. The fact that your main character feels pressured to complete a task by a particular time will also urge your reader to fly through the pages. If your character has all the time in the world to achieve the quest, then your reader may subconsciously feel they have all the time in the world to read your book.
Let the Characters Have Disagreements
For those who enjoy watching reality TV, chances are you appreciate it because of how entertaining the arguments can be. Whether staged or genuine, audience views go up the more contestants fight with each other. The same principle applies to books. Most genres operate within the premise that the "good guys are fighting the bad guys". But the protagonists can also fight, or at least disagree, amongst themselves. So can the villains. Disagreements are efficient ways to create tension because they drive the story forward and make the reader want to know how things will play out. One of the best things to remember when planning a story is what a character wants and it will be achieved. Based on the protagonist's personal desires, they may ally with one character and become at odds with others. When you know what each character wants, it's easier to see how they interact with other personas. For example, a character who believes pineapple belongs on pizza might disagree with someone else who believes fruit has no place on pizza. Disagreements also make the characters and story more relatable because we've all had arguments with other people. Essentially, the more reality you put into your world, even when you're writing fiction, the more you draw readers in. You might be thinking, does a character need to win the argument? In most cases, no. Nobody needs to be right and nobody needs to be wrong. Furthermore, the argument doesn't even have to be that relevant to the story. What is crucial is that it feels important to your character at that moment.
Play with the Idea of Plot Twists
Everyone knows that a plot twist is the part of a story where something completely unexpected happens. It can display itself as the big whodunit reveal, a central character dying, two characters suddenly falling in love, and so many other things. Nowadays, many people expect the unexpected and pointedly look for a plot twist near the end of a book. Whenever I read a novel, this is how I think - and I'm sure many others feel the same way. But who says there has to be only one plot twist? Who says it has to be at the end of the novel? Creating the unexpected is the best way to build tension and the best way to hook readers throughout the entire book. So if your readers expect a major plot twist near the end of the book, why not change things up? Many popular novels have used this technique to their advantage. Recently I read The Guest List by Lucy Foley. Her book has a clever and unique twist on the whodunit storyline. Not only are you reading to find out who the killer is, but you're also reading to find out who the victim is. Lucy Foley's choice to include two major plot twists allowed her to write more tension into her story.
So take a look at some books on your shelf and see how they use tension. Do you notice any of the techniques mentioned above? Do they use something entirely different? The more you intentionally try to fill your writing with tension, the more likely you will draw readers in and keep them reading until the very last page.
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