Blog

Ten Techniques for Getting Tension on Every Page

Thursday, December 13, 2012


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Is it possible to keep our readers interested with every page they turn? Or will there be times in our stories when their attention will naturally lag?

I recently got an email from a writer who was concerned about this very thing. She said: I know I'm interested in what I'm writing, but I want to make sure the reader is too. I don't want to describe everything so much that the reader gets bored with the story. Are there any ways to keep the story flowing and keep the reader's interest leading up to the intense scenes?

I'm not sure about you, but I'd rather not take any chances in losing my readers' attention. There are too many other things clamoring for their time and energy. We don't want to give them any excuse to put our book down and not pick it back up again.

But is it realistic to think we can rivet our readers on Every. Single. Page?

On the one hand, we probably can't have shootings and bombings and chases in each scene. And our antagonist can't show up with a knife every time our character turns around. We would tire our readers with so much drama, and our story might start to feel over-the-top.

Maybe we can't have action every single second, but it IS possible to have tension on every page.

Here are some techniques I employ in my books:

1. Tension through smaller scale drama. When we start writing a scene, we can ask ourselves what would make this scene more interesting or add more conflict. Maybe we won't light fireworks, but we can find the sparklers to add some pizzazz to the scene.

2. Tension through unanswered questions. It's all too tempting to explain every action and tell our readers exactly what's going on. We can stretch tension when we strategically leave questions or backstory unanswered so that our reader is wondering what happened in the past to shape current motivations and actions.

3. Tension through contrast. We can build up happiness, love, wealth or anything positive, but hint that something terrible is about to happen. Then when we take everything away from our characters and plunge them into despair, the contrast serves to create greater tension. The greater the joy, then the greater the sorrow when the joy is finally ripped away from our characters.

4. Tension through internal conflict. Maybe we can't have our external plot thread front and center with every scene, but we can use the "slower" scenes to highlight the internal or relational conflicts our character is facing. We can have our character agonizing over a decision, making wrong choices, or fighting inner demons. The internal battles can be just as powerful as the external.

5. Tension through hints of problems that are yet to come. We can also use the less dramatic scenes to set up the conflict that is ahead for our characters. Perhaps our characters can see the trouble coming. Perhaps they can't (and only our readers are privy). Whatever the case, we can start to make our readers anticipate a bigger future conflict so that they'll want to read further to get to that big show-down.

6. Tension through raising the stakes. We should look for ways to take more away from our character, make their choices more difficult, and/or increase what's at risk for them. We can let them have encounters with others or internal realizations that keep winding the noose tighter around their necks.

7. Tension through the ticking clock. Whether it's a looming deadline, a race against time, or even an effort to survive, when we weave in the ticking clock effect, our characters always have something hanging over their heads. The longer we can keep the clock ticking, the more the reader will be invested in the story to find out what happens.

8. Tension through mystery. Even if our story isn't a mystery or suspense, we can still weave in an element of mystery. For example in the opening scene of my spring release, A Noble Groom, the heroine stumbles upon her husband who has clearly been murdered. I leave clues about the murderer, but keep the reader guessing for most of the book until finally revealing the culprit at the end.

9. Tension through micro-tension. In his book, The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass describes micro-tension as the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds. Maass explains that we can do this by infusing conflicting emotion into our dialogue, action, and exposition. It's the conflicting emotions that keep readers invested.

10. Tension through a subplot. If we have a subplot, we can use the lags in main plot to bring out the conflict that's developing within our subplot. We can alternate the problems we're highlighting so that we continually portray some kind of conflict on the stage of our story.

Do you think it's possible to put tension on every page? Has the lack of tension ever made you put down a book?

34 comments:

  1. You know, I've probably put a handful of books down due to lack of tension over the years, but I'm much more apt to put a book down because the characters don't hook me. Why would I read about a character loosing a farm or husband or child or whatever, when I don't care about that character?

    And yes, I think tension is possible on every (or nearly every) page. But as you said, it's got to be a wide, eclectic variety. Too much of the same kind of tension will make readers roll their eyes and put books down too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We as writers certainly need to be jugglers, don't we? Yes, not only do we have to keep the tension ball in the air, but at the same time we have to be making our characters likeable! Great point, Naomi. Thanks for reminding us! :-)

      Delete
  2. Absolutely awesome post, Jody! Thank you so much for bringing all the good tension-creating techniques in one place!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post! Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I believe we need tension on every page - not necessarily the same amount, it will vary by scene - but we do need it to keep readers interested. In my WIP I've had to cut large chunks of my story because of the lag. It took me awhile to get to that point as a writer. As a beginning sometimes I feel so attached to my story, even the first draft, I feel like I've wasted my time if I cut whole scenes or even whole chapters. But I've realized if I don't love every scene in my story what makes me think my readers would? Tension is essential, I believe. Right up there with characters you can love and relate to.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Shelly, I've had a hard time learning to cut large chunks from my first draft too. Actually, I have a hard time cutting from second drafts or really any draft! :-) After taking the time to craft our stories and words, it's hard to let go, isn't it?

      One of my solutions is that I open a brand new document and title it "Deleted Sections.Name of Book" Then I cut all of my deleted sections into the document chapter by chapter. Even though I hardly ever need to repaste those deletions, it makes me feel better about cutting them because I'm still saving that hard work, just in case. :-)

      Delete
  5. Great explanations of the variety of tension-building techniques available. Love it. I see far too many beginning writers interpret the advice "tension on every page" to mean fisticuffs, car chases or shouting matches on every page.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The lack of tension has definitely made me put down a few books. Normally I read books through to the end, even if I don't like them (partly because I'm hoping that the books will eventually surprise me or at least get better). But there are some that I just can't finish reading. Those are typically the ones that have unlikable characters or no tension at all. If there's no tension, then what's left in the plot? So your post has very good advice for making sure that readers actually want to read books through to the end.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great post. I have so much to learn to do this well-- I appreciate the easy-to-apply tips.

    ReplyDelete
  8. You are a master at this, Jody. Thanks for sharing your techniques. Too often writers misinterpret high drama for tension. Tension builds and often when we are little aware. So employing a variety of techniques is key to a great story. Blessings!!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Very helpful article, Jody. Just read a post by Maass about microtension over at Novel Rocket, but I like the way you explain it here.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Awesome post, as usual. :) I can't wait to go check out the types of tension I'm using in my MS and see how I'm doing.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Very nice list. Thank you, Jody!
    I have a reminder taped on my external hard drive (add tension on every page) and ways on how. Most came from Donald's awesome book :-)

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hello everybody, here every person is sharing these experience, therefore it's pleasant to read this web site, and I used to pay a quick visit this web site all the time.
    My weblog ; erinmore mixture

    ReplyDelete
  14. Great list, thank you so much!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Jody, this is great information! I hope you don't mind if I share it with my writing group. Thanks so much for posting this.

    RG Calkins

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you found the info. helpful! I'm more than happy to have you share the info with your group! Hope it's helpful to them as well.

      Delete
    2. Glad you found the info. helpful! I'm more than happy to have you share the info with your group! Hope it's helpful to them as well. site internet medoc

      Delete
  16. Great thoughts Judy. I guess you are referring to the literary equivalent of the Jaws music. There the tension is created by the apparent mismatch between the idyllic image of a midnight swim and the threatening scary music. If we can create the same sense of dissonance in our writing we will have cracked it! I am reading Brandon Sanderson's Well of Ascension at the moment and I have just counted nine threads of tension running at the same time, constantly weaving in and out of focus.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Dom

    ReplyDelete
  17. This is a great list, Jody. I'm pleased to see the inclusion of #8. When I'm reading, it's the mysterious bits I don't know about that keep me curious, and there's a place for them in books that don't necessarily fit into the typical mystery/suspense genre.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Good one post.Thanks to share this great information.
    Tension

    ReplyDelete
  19. harder when shopping online because not all books have excerpts available for browsing. bubblegum casting

    ReplyDelete
  20. I've only recently come to your blog, and have opened previous posts to find them well crafted, helpful, and encouraging. Thank you. I'm glad I'm aboard your train tubelaunch review

    ReplyDelete
  21. Jody, this is great information! I hope you don't mind if I share it with my writing group. Serialai online

    ReplyDelete
  22. American history. Whether you are a history buff, hobbyist, or history student, these suggestions for dioramas should get your creative juices flowing. They are:bubblegum casting

    ReplyDelete
  23. Thanks for your great article friend, i get new information, new ideas seo spain

    ReplyDelete
  24. I first visit this site and try to look what this site talks about I was really amazed with.WOW!fantastic. SEO Conference

    ReplyDelete
  25. This should not be denied to people. More should speak out about this using social media. Pr backlinks

    ReplyDelete
  26. I am always on the lookout for quality posts and articles so i suppose im lucky to have found this! I hope you will be adding more in the future download clash of clans hack

    ReplyDelete
  27. i like your post and all you share with us is uptodate and quite informative, i would like to bookmark the page so i can come here again to read you, as you have done a wonderful job cheap backlinks

    ReplyDelete
  28. I suppose im lucky to have found this! I hope you will be adding more in the future cheap backlinks

    ReplyDelete
  29. Thank you and good luck on informing people more about it seo spain

    ReplyDelete
  30. i would like to bookmark the page so i can come here again to read you, as you have done a wonderful job cheap seo in barcelona

    ReplyDelete

© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!