I received this by private message in Facebook this morning:
“Good evening, any idea when Shadow Hill will be hitting the bookshelves? I just started Graveyard Bay this week and can’t believe how much your books make my heart race. I find myself tensing and holding my breath, trying to prepare myself for when the boogeyman jumps out. I just ordered all three of your books today for a friend at work. They’ve got a birthday coming up and I know they’ll love them. Your books are really amazing.”
That made my day! I can’t stop smiling.
Tension—the mighty engine that moves the plot forward. The dictionary defines tension as mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense, anxiety, or excitement. It also defines it as being stretched or strained. Isn’t that the ringer we want to put our readers through?
Here are my thoughts about creating tension.
The readers have to like and relate to the characters. They need to be invested in them, to care for them, and worry about them.
The protagonist has to be an active participant in the plot, their decisions and actions have consequences. How many times have you gone to a movie where the protagonist starts down a dark stairwell or dangerous hallway when your inner voice is screaming, “Don’t go down there!”
Be careful here, however. There’s something called “Too Stupid to Live” syndrome. If you’re allowing your lead character to walk into the serial killer’s tool shed, she’d better have a damned good reason. Otherwise, your reader’s going to be saying, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, she’s too stupid to live” and close the book.
There should be character conflict. We’ve all been in relationships with friends, family, lovers, or even co-workers and sooner or later, there’s gonna’ be drama. Readers can relate to that. They’ve been through it. No relationship is rosy all the time.
There’s internal character conflict. My protagonist has a problem with alcohol and relating to authority. And in spite of being extremely intelligent and aware, she makes bad life decisions. Most of my readers find these quirks to be endearing. I want her to be someone you’d like to have a glass of wine with…just not too many of them.
Your lead character should have a dark threat hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles. Maybe it starts out when your protagonist doesn’t know how she’s going to pay her bills. Or when a lover talks about leaving. Then it might build with an unknown killer on the loose. Oh, my God, the boogeyman is hiding around the corner. Escalate the threats.
Want to ramp that up even higher? Threaten your lead character’s loved ones! Put them in danger.
Time itself might be a threat. Your character may only have a specified amount of time to solve the mystery before there are horrible consequences. Tension escalates when the clock is ticking.
Have you written a tense scene? Is your protagonist racing to beat a deadline? Is she running through the forest to save her daughter? Ramp it up. Do it during an ice storm, making it difficult to get traction, dodging falling tree branches, the clock is ticking. As the story unfolds, the road to any kind of success should get harder and the stakes get higher. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, create another hurdle.
Be mindful that there should be an ebb and flow of tension, a little breathing space. Otherwise, you’ll wear your reader out. But at the end of the breather, that’s always a great place to put a plot twist.
In some ways, writers have to be cruel. You’re putting your babies in harm’s way, putting them in extreme danger, striking fear in their hearts, dropping them into a life and death situation.
In real life, I think we try to avoid tension and drama. I know I do. But when I read a novel or watch a movie, I want to be on that roller coaster ride with characters in whom I’m invested and want to see survive. I want to see them win.