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.
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