In case you missed it, Creating Tension – Part 1 is here.
We already know how important it is to have tension in our writing to keep the reader interested. So what’s the secret to creating reader-grabbing tension? Do you wanna know? Do you? Are you really really sure? It’s the biggest secret ever. Are you sitting down? You don’t have a heart condition, right? You can handle a big shock can’t you? You might want to have the children leave the room for this one. Are you realy really ready now?
Ok, I think you see the pattern. I keep raising questions, and that’s essentially what tension is. It’s a question about what’s going to happen next. Readers have a built in need to know– but not just what’s going to happen at the very end of the book – because honestly that takes too long.
As writers, we want to get tension on every page (or even every paragraph). The MC doesn’t need to be faced with a question of life or death every second, but give the reader something that makes them want to keep turning the page. Invite them into your story and keep them there. You want them to be thinking “Oh man, how is this gonna turn out?”
Again, that doesn’t mean they are only wondering how the end of the story turns out (It’s good they wonder about the end, but that’s too far distant). They should be wondering about something happening right now – which door will the MC choose – how will she hide all those snicker wrappers – pick up the knife or the chainsaw – should she trust what the man behind the curtain is telling her? Keep those questions coming, because that generates reader interest.
There are plenty of ways to create tension, but I want to talk about two, because that’s what started this whole post. I was chatting with one of my Critique Partners and the topic of tension came up. After talking with her, I realized she approached tension very differently than I did – still quite effective, but different.
Approach 1: Creating tension by placing a set of obstacles in the path of the MC. The tension comes from the questions in the reader’s mind about how the MC will overcome these obstacles. Think of a set of tasks that the MC needs to complete. I think of this as a progressive type of tension. I recently read the book THE MAP TO EVERYWHERE by Carrie Ryan. If you like fun MG books, this is a good one. Anyway, the MC needs to collect pieces of a map in order to get back home and save the world from a bad guy who also wants the map. A fairly conventional plot, but done with a lot of imagination. The author maintains tension throughout the book by raising questions about how the MC will get each piece. One piece is locked in a pirate ship, another is hidden in a living tree city and a third sits in a land so cold words freeze in the air. These mini-obstacles keep the reader engaged, because they want to know how the MC will figure each one out on their way to the ultimate goal – assembling the full map before the bad guy can.
This is a really solid approach to building tension, but there is also a danger here. The problem is, sometimes as the MC is collecting pieces in this progressive type of story, it builds a sense of the inevitable win. As a reader, I see the MC is overcoming all the obstacles and maybe getting new powers and allies. This lowers the tension level, because now I start to think “Hey, this guy’s got the magic wand and the sword of power and a new best friend who is a wizard…so of course everything is going to turn out ok. I mean it has so far right?”
This is where the second approach to creating tension can be useful.
Approach 2: Create tension by making your MC’s life miserable. Yes, that’s right you have to be mean to your MC. Believe it or not, that’s a really tough thing to do for some writers. We fall in love with our MC’s and we shy away from making bad things happen to them. Well, I’m here to tell you it’s ok. Trust me, I’ve been absolutely draconian to some of my MC’s and so far the Fictional Characters Union hasn’t raised a single complaint.
Don’t give your MC a great bunch of helpful friends. Make the friends have their own agenda and even when they seem like they’re helping, they aren’t. Give the MC a magic wand…that drains their life every time they use it. Give the bad guy all the advantages and give your MC nothing but grief. Is your MC a child genius? Great, then make sure the super invention they created is sabotaged and blows up during the science fair.
The point of all this is that it provides setbacks to overcoming the obstacles. It’s not getting easier for the MC to achieve the ultimate goal. It’s getting harder. I think of this as an anti-progressive type of tension. And because the odds of success keep going down, that raises the tension level because now the reader is questioning how in the world the MC can ever win?
Let’s go back to the story where the MC had to collect pieces of the map. I’ll admit I was starting to sense the inevitable win coming on by the time they had the 2nd piece. And that’s when the author very cleverly had the first two pieces stolen away by the bad guy. And not only that, the guide that had been leading the MC to each piece suddenly changed sides. Holy-up-crap-creek-without-a-paddle, Batman. Now I’m immediately reinvested in the story. Everything has gone horribly wrong and as a reader, I can’t possibly see how the MC will ever win now. But of course she does and that’s the part that keeps me reading. I want to know how she pulls this off.
If you’ve ever looked at plot graphs, you probably recognize this. There’s a point where things get really bad for the MC right before the climax. That all-time low, makes the sense of victory so much sweeter when we get to see how the MC overcomes all those terrible things us mean writers put them through. Don’t save all the bad stuff till the end either. Throw a setback at the MC right up front, and keep on throwing them. Your MC might not be so happy about it, but your readers will thank you.
Ok, that’s about it for creating tension. Just one more important parting thought. Tension is one of those things we can really practice and work on as writers. A lot of things in writing are abstract and hard to grasp (voice for example…ugghhh, don’t get me started). But tension is a real thing that we can focus our concentration on and get better at. If you work at creating tension – at creating small and big story questions – you will get better at it and you will see the improvement in your writing.
So what are you waiting for? Get out that pen and start putting tension on those pages.
All the best,