When it comes to crafting a book, everyone wants something that will have the reader turning the page.
While such an achievement requires a combination of factors like a good plot, excellent characters, well-flowing prose, chocolate sacrifices, and the naming rights of your firstborn to the muse (if you’re willing to go that far), you can also create a page-turner with some well-placed tension.
Tension in your novel also helps to add layers to your characters and to move your story forward—other essential ingredients for an excellent book.
Writing Tips: Building Tension
Add Unanswered Questions
Have you ever read a book that’s just been okay? The premise is fine, the characters relatable enough, you aren’t racing to pick it up every day, but you’re not ready to boot it from your reading pile just yet. Then it happens. You come across one sentence that forms a question.
It could be the MC musing about her first love, an off-page character who doesn’t seem like much until the info drops that they mysteriously disappeared. Now you’re intrigued. Now you want to pick up that book and keep reading. The book has posed a question and now you want the answer.
Unanswered questions build tension, and the best thing about them is that they can be big or small, and you don’t have to limit yourself to just one. Your book can have an unanswered question in every chapter if you can plausibly swing it. Just ensure that you answer the question at some point and kick off a new question to keep the tension going until the last page.
Make Events More Complicated
Sure, you could write a book where nothing bad really happens and the characters all get what they want with little effort or fuss, but would anyone want to read it?
The answer is no. Readers want characters who get what they want after they’ve been through hell. You get that kind of tension by making events more complicated than they need to be.
Unless the plot or genre calls for it, we’re not talking ridiculously complicated, but just complicated enough. For example, say that your character needs to go across town to pick up an item by a certain time. Normally, such a mundane event would go off without a hitch. But not in your story. In your tension-packed tome, the MC’s car won’t start. Then they miss the bus. Then the Uber that arrives is driven by a pregnant lady who—you guessed it—goes into labor. A simple drive across town becomes a complicated event full of tension. And your readers will love it.
Put In Higher Stakes
Trying to get your MC across town to pick something up might be tension-filled when you throw complicated events into the mix, but if you want the tension to be even higher, you’ve got to raise the stakes.
What if the item your MC needs to pick up is life-saving medicine? What if it’s a ransom needed to get their kidnapped child back? The higher the stakes, the tighter the tension, the more readers will want to keep reading.
Make It Hard For The Main Character To Cope
Not all stories are action-packed races against a ticking clock. Some plots can’t build tension off mysterious disappearances, unexpected medical emergencies, or ransom demands. All stories, however, have an MC and they are another way to add tension.
You do this by making it hard for the MC to cope. It could be with the fact they now need to deliver a stranger’s baby, or by sending them home for a holiday weekend and having them deal with their family. Whatever the events of your book, if the MC isn’t coping, the tension is there.
Add Non-resolved Threats
One last way to build the tension in your story is to introduce a threat and then leave it unresolved for a good portion of the story.
For the sanity and satisfaction of your readers, the threat should eventually resolve. But the longer you can realistically string it out, the better. It will dramatically up the tension and have your readers flying through every chapter to find out how it all ends.
That kind of tension and the tension you get from unanswered questions, complicated events, higher stakes, and an MC struggling to cope should introduce all the elements needed to gain the reader’s interest and keep it.
— K.M. Allan