Five tips on building tension in fiction

How to increase your reader's anticipation

Pic via Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

Tension is what gets the reader turning the pages of your novel. Tension arises from conflict. And conflict is, essentially, the meeting of two opposing forces. Your novel will have interwoven conflicts: in the overarching plot, via contrasted or opposing characters, and within the characters themselves (internal conflict). Tension anticipates conflict, sitting in that space between opposing forces.

A common issue I see in manuscripts is either a lack of tension or tension that is not built well or is too quickly diffused. As a writer, I understand how difficult it is to draw tension out! Often, and mostly unconsciously, you want to end your character’s suffering. Or you want to get something down on the page (information for the reader) before you yourself forget it! This is one reason redrafting is so important. You can then properly determine what your conflicts are, and increase the tension in your work to invoke them page by page, scene by scene.

For now, here are five tips on improving tension in your manuscript:

Foreshadowing

Once you understand what your conflict is, and how it will reach a crisis, you can go back through the manuscript and drop hints. These hints could occur through actions; dialogue and subtext; in the setting or story world (think of Chekhov’s gun); and through minor characters, who can more overtly state what the major characters cannot. Some hints can be accurate and some misleading, and each hint should also build upon the last.

Repetition and accumulation

How do you create a build, an anticipation, through foreshadowed elements? Repetition is one way. In the show Mindhunter, about the beginnings of the FBI’s criminal profiling unit, I began to notice that they were rendering one of the characters, Holden, as being extremely calm and capable. And then this aspect of Holden’s personality was frequently commented on by other characters. That set up tension, and anticipation, towards its opposite: What if Holden’s calm was a precursor to chaos? What if it is superficial?

A very ‘calm’ Holden Ford in Mindhunter

Give your characters secrets, and secret desires, from others but also from themselves

In Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko, there are layers of secrets. The main character, Kerry, tells herself she wants to get out of her hometown and away from her family as soon as possible. She’s come back because her Pop is ill, close to death. But throughout the narrative the reader becomes aware of deeper, complex desires to reconnect with and repair her family. Additionally, she has a more overt desire – to get something back that has fallen into the wrong hands – that is still secret from her family. Maintaining these secrets for much of the narrative, and having the character’s actions be determined by them, is a strong way to hold tension for the reader, and it also contributes to both a satisfying plot and character arc when these elements are finally resolved.

Put obstacles in the way of your characters getting what they want

As a younger writer, I was skeptical of this advice. I thought that throwing boulders in my character’s path was kind of false, and also manipulative of the reader. What I didn’t comprehend was how measured and subtle you can be about this – that it doesn’t have to mean fights and explosions, that it often simply means the character makes a bad decision – that they get in their own way. In real life, how often do things go wrong despite good intentions? That’s something to keep in mind as you test your character. Having them face a series of obstacles not only increases tension, it shows us who they are. And if they’ve been tested, and tested themselves, a successful resolution to their conflict is all the more satisfying.

Play with sentence length and sentence rhythm

Have a look at a book you’ve recently read. As you’re reaching the crisis – when those opposing forces clash, when tension is pulled tight – do the sentences get shorter? Are there more paragraph breaks? Or sometimes it’s the opposite – the writer really slows down, pauses, holds the reader back, really increasing their anticipation. You can create an effect with your sentence structure and paragraphing so that the ‘action’ is read in a certain way. Reading it aloud can be helpful.

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I have an essay in a forthcoming creative writing book exploring conflict and tension in relation to the works of one of my favourite Australian authors. It’s not due out until May 2021 but watch this space!

My capsule course on creating memorable characters also explores these concepts in relation to the character arc.

And if you’re looking for a Christmas gift that also raises money for a great cause (Australian Marine Conservation Society and Australian Wildlife Conservancy), I have an essay on the beautiful spotted harrier (aka ‘smoke hawk’) that visited my parents’ property after the fires in the book Animals Make Us Human (out 3 November). It has an incredible line-up of contributors writing about, and photographing, Australian wildlife.

Opportunity of the month

The Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship supports Australian writers of biography, and extends to include a writer who is working on an aspect of cultural or social history. The Fellowship awards $15,000 to assist with travel and research. Closes 16 November. 

And don’t forget about the Allen & Unwin crime fiction prize. The prize is publication and a $25,000 advance. Closes 26 February 2021.

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Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,
Angela

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