Creating Tension in Your Fiction
There’s a lot of advice out there about creating tension in your writing. As far as I can tell, quite a lot of them focus on sentence structure and atmosphere. While these things are certainly important, there are sure-fire approaches that will ensure that your readers keep turning the page.
Sure-fire way of creating tension/suspense: delay
This is almost a cliché, but it works. You know that the villain is about to find the protagonist. You know that a bomb is about to go off. You know that the secret is about to be exposed and that all hell will break loose as a result.
These things are known to you – you’ve planned it all out, right?
Now, instead of letting this inevitability occur right away, delay. Give it time – stretch – it – out – make the audience – wait. Let usual things occur for a page, maybe even a page and a half. You know what’s just around the corner. The characters don’t.
Delays are boring, unless…
Delays without context are merely filler (never write filler). Like I said: you know what’s about to happen and your characters don’t. This alone will not create tension. For this you need to let someone else in on the joke: the reader.
If you and the reader know what’s around the corner and your characters don’t, suddenly you have tension.
When the audience/readers know something that the character doesn’t, it is called “dramatic irony”.
As an aside here, revealing such information may depend on point-of-view of the narration. It may be harder to achieve in first person, for instance (unless they are reporting on the past, for example). Here I suggest leaving clues that are clear to the reader, but not to the character. Remember, there is no such thing as perfect character that knows all and sees into the future (I digress).
In-Jokes & Hitch
The key is making the audience fully aware of the situation. Put simply: if they don’t understand what the character’s motivations are and what is about to go down and what’s at stake, they won’t care. They need to know that the ‘inevitable’ is.
I’ll leave it to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, to explain:
(Source: American Film Institute, 2008)
While Mr Hitchcock is talking about the visual medium here, this lesson can easily be applied to prose. While you don’t have the aspect of time that movies have (i.e. time ticks by in a movie, in a novel time depends on words and reading time, etc.), prose can employ other tricks.
Here Death, the narrator, reveals who will die chapters before the death occurs. Normally such things would spoil the suspense, but Zusak does this in such a way that inspires dread and suspense. We know that he will collect souls, but we aren’t entirely sure of the when and how. This compels you to read on (when? how? is it true?).
And that’s why you want tension after all: to compel the reader.
The Truth is out there
There are many examples of such tension out there. What have you found?
How are you going to delay the inevitable? How will you reveal it to the reader?
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