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The Art of Building Tension

At the heart of every story is tension.

Building conflict, internal and external and keeping what your protagonist desires just out of reach, is the key to establishing the rising tension that readers are expecting, while injecting the unexpected.

I remember writing a scene in my latest novel, Deep Deceit, where tension was building between two characters, conflict was palpable and as I wrote it I still didn't really know where it was going but I could feel the anxiety building in myself! When the scene climaxed, even I was shocked at what happened. The result of that scene then continued to escalate the overall tension leading to the ultimate climax of the story.

No matter what type of structure you follow, whether you're a plotter or pantser (I fall somewhere in the middle), no matter how many chapters and scenes, all stories have:

  • An introduction to your characters
  • A situation, brought in early on, that creates a central conflict for the main character
  • An escalation of tension – becoming more intimate and intense
  • Rising stakes
  • A moment at which everything seems lost
  • A climactic encounter
  • A satisfying conclusion
  • A transformation of character and/or situation
If it doesn’t fit the storyline to introduce the conflict in the first few pages, then the lead up should be engaging in some way… humorous, thought-provoking or emotionally charged for example.

The wildly popular The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, is told from the perspective of the family dog, Enzo. It's the story of Denny, Enzo's owner, who marries and starts a family.

The conflict doesn't come in for several chapters but we get to know Enzo and his family. the author uses humour to engage the reader. It's entertaining and engaging even without any conflict, which is difficult to accomplish. When conflict does enter, it's with a vengeance... Denny's wife dies. Her parents decide they want custody of his beloved daughter and will do anything to make it happen, even lie about Denny.

In his book Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules, Steven James says, “A character is failing his way through escalating setbacks and struggles until all seems lost, and then, at the climax, he overcomes or is overcome by the struggle.”

Every story has scenes and each scene is a mini-story with an orientation, a turning point or crisis, an escalation of conflict, a choice, ending with a new normal (or complication that moves the story forward).

The things that happen in a scene should alter reality in some way, whether it's the main character’s status, attitude or perspective.

Each scene builds on an on-going cycle of events that lead up to the final climax and resolution.

Defining Goals

You can’t build tension unless your character’s goals are clearly defined. Otherwise, the reader doesn’t know what she’s hoping the protagonist achieves. Once the goal is clear, you can then build the tension using things like 'the information drip' where you continually, gradually reveal information, withholding just enough to keep readers guessing but not so much that they get frustrated. Or perhaps cliff hanger chapter endings. The end of a chapter should leave a burning question that makes the reader want to read one more before turning off the light. Never end with a resolution to a problem... close, but not quite.

Make your protagonist and antagonist desire totally different outcomes or, desiring the same thing but needing each other to achieve the goal.

Sprinkle in a few moral dilemmas. Something that matters must be at stake and there’s no easy solution and no easy way out. Your character must make a choice. The more quickly the choice has to be made and the higher the stakes creates more dramatic tension and more reader engagement.

Not every story has edge of your seat, heart in your throat tension, but you always want to build interest and anticipation. If readers care about your character they’ll cheer for them, feel their pain and revel in their success.

I'd love to hear some of your favourite examples of great tension building stories and cliff hangers.


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Comments

Carol said…
Great advice for a novice like me and in plain language..thank you :)
You're most welcome Carol! I'm glad you found it helpful :)
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