One of the essentials of storytelling is that obstacles should increase in intensity over the course of a novel.
This means tension steadily ratchets up. The stakes deepen. Things feel more dangerous and precarious.
So many times when I’m editing novels, an author will introduce a juicy conflict or moment of romantic tension, only to let all that wonderful tension fizzle and dissipate. They’ll let the characters off the hook.
Think of a novel like a balloon. Once you pump it full of tension, you don’t want to just let it splutter out. You want the reader to worry the thing is going to pop.
Here are some tips for keeping the tension alive.
Let conflicts linger
One of the biggest mistakes authors make when trying to create an interesting relationship between two characters is to always leave their interactions in the same muddled place.
Even when the characters fight, they quickly make up within the same scene and keep moving along.
Don’t do this! When characters fight, let it linger. Revel in the awkwardness. Make it difficult for them to make up.
Knowing that there’s an unresolved conflict just lingering out there is an excellent source of tension, especially if the reader knows the protagonist may end up suffering for it.
Characters in danger need to act like they’re in danger
No matter how many zombies are running around or homicidal aliens descending from the skies, unless the characters take actions that reflect a sense of danger, the reader is not going to feel the danger.
There’s a simple rule: characters in danger need to act like they’re in danger.
This means characters can’t just languidly walk around without a care in the world. They shouldn’t endlessly dither making decisions. They shouldn’t have all the time in the world to aimlessly chitchat and banter.
We should see all of the extra precautions they’re taking and a creeping sense of paranoia. They should feel a sense of urgency.
Tension should cloud moments of respite
Now, don’t get me wrong. Once there’s an action scene a protagonist doesn’t need to be on the run for the entire rest of the novel. Your characters, and your reader, may need a break from time to time.
But you want to create a sense that things can never go back to the way things were before the protagonist started on their journey. As much as they want to head home and bury themselves in bed, it’s not possible. They’re in too deep.
So even if you want to show a protagonist who’s gotten complacent or overconfident in the face of the danger they’re facing, give the reader hints that things are not totally fine. Remind them there’s still something lurking.
Whatever is causing the tension should loom over everything.
Give your characters reasons to care
At the end of the day, the reader is going to take cues from your characters about how they should feel.
If your character isn’t worried, your reader isn’t going to be worried. If they aren’t feeling the heat, your reader isn’t going to feel the heat.
Look for reasons to make your characters care even more about what’s happening. And always look for ways to ratchet up the tension.
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Art: The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David
I know I’m guilty of this. I’m the type of person who mysteriously needs a drink of water or has to use the restroom at the most tension filled part of the movie. And I’ve stopped reading books that had too much tension. If the tension gets to the point that I feel like something so bad I don’t want to know about it is going to happen, I usually stop reading. On the flip side, if the tension is ratcheted up that high, I also feel that if the bad thing doesn’t happen it’ll be a let down. Either way. I don’t usually finish… sometimes I cheat and look up what happened, but even then I don’t go back and finish.
Basically, I don’t like tension, so I find it hard to write.
JOHN T. SHEA says
“They shouldn’t endlessly dither making decisions.”
Unless they’re Hamlet. I mean, he had ONE job! Kill Claudius already! But instead he killed nearly everyone else! Hamlet should just have hired George R. R. Martin as a wedding planner and Claudius (and everybody else) would be dead and the play over in one act and we could all go home early. BUT NO! He HAD to dither and dither and dither for 3 more hours! Who in their right mind would want him on the throne of Denmark?
Neil Larkins says
In your review of John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” you said that he well described the “confusion and tension of first love.” That spoke to me and is what I have delineated in my current wip, a memoir — Because that is how it happened (and why for years I wanted to get it written down). Art imitates life in a journey. My hope is that I have done an adequate job of bringing the reader along for the ride. Thanks, Nathan.
Michael W. Perry says
I disagree. For a short story or perhaps a two-hour movie, a steadily escalating tension can be fine. But for a book-length read, it becomes exhausting. Give readers a break, a genuine break.
I noticed that when I was listening to audiobook versions of the early Tarzan novels. They were originally written, chapter by chapter, for periodicals. There the steady drumbeat of tension was a plus. It kept readers coming back—but notably after a week or more. Listening to the tales all at once left me frustrated. “When one crisis is solved,” I thought, “why don’t we get a break before the next?”
You see that in a classic written by a master writer, The Lord of the Rings. Every so often, Tolkien breaks the tension by providing his characters with a break, typically in safe elvish enclaves, but also in the Ent forest and when dining on rabbit. Indeed, parts of the narrative is filled with drudgery, because that’s what his characters were experiencing.
In short, the best tales have a wealth of different emotions, blending rest with action and danger with humor. Peter Jackson was smart enough to build humor into his movie version of The Lord of the Rings.
–Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien (a day-by-day chronology of LOTR)
Nathan Bransford says
I’m confused, you don’t think I covered this in the “Tension should cloud moments of respite” section? I don’t recall feeling like the characters ever really felt off the hook even when they were resting or feasting in LOTR.
These were some of the key issues with my first draft. My protagonist came across as flippant and dulled the sense of danger I wanted. Also, his love life basically stayed in the same muddled place. Working through these problems in a revision, and I’m seeing life in the story that wasn’t there before. Good points, Nathan.