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 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 tension 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 through witty dialogue, growing attraction, conflict with minor characters, etc.
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 novel, 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?