Have you ever read a book you couldn’t put it down? A story where you couldn’t flip the page fast enough, or wait to dive back into its chapters, resenting all life distractions until you can read “The End”?
While novels like this are no doubt filled with worlds you connect with, terrific or terrifying characters, real dialogue, and surprising plot twists, they also contain the one thing that makes your readers eager to see what happens next: tension.
Adding tension to your story is like putting frosting on a cake. The frosting is arguably the best part of the cake, and tension is like that for your story. It draws the reader in; they want more, right until the last sentence, when all the delicious
cake story has been devoured.
So how do you get this awesome tension baked into your MS? By giving these tips a try…
Not So Easy Peasy
In those rare moments in life when things are going pretty well and nothing dramatic is happening, everything is easy peasy. It’s also boring and not the ideal model to base a book on. No reader will want to read chapter after chapter of your character going about their life, always winning. They need drama. Highs. Lows. Not easy. Not peasy. And that is where the tension comes in. Make things hard, give them a win, make it hard again.
Hitchhike Through Obstacle City
Okay, so maybe you don’t want to make things too hard. That might not suit your genre and that’s fine. But every genre can add tension by hitchhiking their characters through obstacle city. They want to be with someone? Sure, they’ve got to fight for them first. They’re about to land their dream job? Okay, but that last-minute snafu with their presentation will put it in doubt. It can be a big obstacle, it can be a small obstacle, just as long as there is something, or a series of somethings, paving bumps in the road.
Get Yourself A One-Armed Man
If you’ve seen The Fugitive, you’ll know Harrison Ford’s character, Dr. Richard Kimble isn’t believed about a one-armed man who killed his wife. This leads to a wrongful conviction, an escape on route to jail, and being pursued by US Marshals. These things alone create tension. Now, I’m not suggesting your book has to have these specific forms of tension, but it needs to have the main one—which is doubt. He wasn’t believed about the one-armed man, and it created terrific tension. You need to have doubt amongst your characters. Tension is upped with their paranoia about each other and each other’s motives. Characters disliking each other, fighting, and brimming with mistrust are tension must-haves.
Conflicts make for great tension. You know what kills conflicts? Resolving them. Your book needs to have resolutions to be a satisfying read, but resolving those conflicts—at least the big ones—too soon undoes that. The solution is to remember not to resolve too early. And, if you resolve some of your conflicts, keep the tension ample by introducing new conflicts. Did your MC just find his long-lost twin? Great! Now up the tension by revealing the twin can’t be trusted (there’s always an evil twin). Piggyback each resolution resolve with a new conflict to keep your tension tight throughout the whole story.
Be A Loser
Some would argue there are no stakes or tension without loss, and I would be one of those people. Loss is universal, everyone feels it in their lives, and so should your characters. Have them lose something. It can be as big as the love of their life or as small as the package they need to deliver for their courier job. Either way, they will feel that loss and it will drive the story forward in all of its tension-filled glory!
Hang Off Those Cliffs
A final tip for injecting tension into your book is to end each scene or chapter with a cliffhanger. It doesn’t need to be a huge OMG-it-was-the-long-lost-sister moment. It can be as simple as your MC receiving an unexpected text message, or just a simple line of dialogue that throws a spanner into the works. Whatever your cliffhanger type moment, make sure it suits what’s happening. Don’t throw out a shock for shock’s sake. The best cliffhangers are credible moments within the story. These moments can shock, but they can also devastate, be happy, sad, or unexpected.
So there you have it, my six tips for adding tension to your book:
- Make it hard.
- Create obstacles.
- Insert doubt.
- Stack your conflicts and don’t resolve them too early.
- Sprinkle in some loss.
- End your scenes/chapters with an appropriate cliffhanger.
If you include them in your manuscript, I hope they keep the reader wanting more and push you to new, exciting heights as a writer. If you have any of your own tension tips, be sure to leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear them!
— K.M. Allan