Stress, sweat and strain: how to heighten tension in your story

 

We all love a good fast paced, page-turning read, but how does a writer achieve this? There are various methods that an author can use to get their readers’ blood pumping, and while they appear obvious as I list them, they can often be neglected when you’re writing:

 

(1)    What’s at stake:

What does your character have to lose and how much is it worth to them? Letting your reader know what’s at risk will help them to see how important it is for your character to succeed.  It also adds to your character’s motivation.

Why would a man cross a ragged rope bridge strung between two cliffs with a raging river at the bottom? Is it to save his wife and child, or to collect a treasure chest?

(2)    Increase Pressure:

Does your character have the ability, knowledge and inclination to achieve the goals that you have set for them? Is the woman trying to rescue her kidnapped child a police detective with the resources and training to find her baby or is she a housewife with no experience except what she’s seen on TV?

(3)    Watch the clock:

Do your characters have five hours or five months to solve the problem? Where’s the excitement in having to defuse a bomb when its still got six hours on the clock? Give your protagonist six minutes and the pressures on!

An event that takes place over a long period of time can lose its effect and slow the pacing of your story. The less time you give your character to solve the problem, the more pressure they are under. Think of the Saw movies: would the scenes in which the victims try to escape the traps be as intense if they had no time limit?

(4)    Do your characters want to succeed?

A hero or protagonist who is willing to risk it all for a cause without any concerns or doubts will be a less interesting character than one who has uncertainties and fears about the task at hand. Even when we as people follow our desires, we will always doubts about the outcome.

(5)    Throw rocks:

Create additional obstacles for your character to overcome. Make use of your secondary characters: are they helping or hindering your character and what do they get out of your protagonist’s success or failure?

(6)    Decisions:

Don’t let your character have it easy. Force them to make choices by creating dilemmas that play on the pressure, time limit and conflicts that you have already created. Does the bomb squad choose to defuse the bomb or leave and save their own lives even though others may die? Do the victims in the Saw movies save others to their own detriment or do they save themselves first?

(7)    Roll the Dice:

Adding a wild card that changes the rules of the game helps to increase the tension. This could be a new (or old) character, or an accidental or uncontrollable event. But remember to play fair. Don’t swindle your readers by creating an easy way out for your character’s hazardous situation or a miraculous answer to their dilemma.

By focusing on each of these aspects in your writing, you can increase the tension for both your characters and your readers!

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2 responses to “Stress, sweat and strain: how to heighten tension in your story

  1. My 17th published book will be “horror” novel . FLESH will become a kindle book later this month. I’ve been writing for pay for over 40 years, and I wanted to share the experience of the writing life rather than the “how to”. The people I met along the way including William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Yitzhak Rabin, etc. , and the conclusions about why we write and for whom. For example:
    http://writingasaprofession.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/keeping-faith-with-william-faulkner/
    I hope that you find this useful to your own process.

  2. All of these points capture the essence of writing a good novel of any sort, although I do tend to think that pacing and pressure are very important to keeping a horror novel from having the chance to become absurd. One of the primary challenges of horror is that as authors we have to put our characters in situations that, if written incorrectly, will become utterly silly. I think that’s why there’s such an industry for campy horror movies: it’s just very easy to cross the line between scary to silly. I would add one further point to your list. To keep pacing quick, you must be brutal with editing out anything unnecessary because those things turn into a distracting sludge for the reader!

    Glad to have found your site!

    -aniko

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