Tension is critical in writing. Whether you are writing novels or screenplays, tension and suspense drive your narrative forward and keep your readers turning pages. To create and maintain tension in your fiction, try the following tips and techniques.
Conflict is the heart of tension. Often conflict is a primal force. Think back to high school. Whenever a fight would erupt, what did people do? Run away and shield their eyes? Of course not. Everyone gathered around to see what would happen. Conflict generates tension because it creates unknown outcomes. Who will win? Who will lose? Who will be changed forever? These are the questions conflict creates.
One of the reasons everyone would gather around to watch the fight in the example above is that they knew the combatants. If you don’t care about the outcome, who cares about the fight? Creating characters we care about is a difficult task onto itself, but the basic goal is to create situations that are identifiable to your audience. We don’t have to like the characters, but we do need to be asking the subconscious question – what would WE do in the hero’s shoes?
The Hero is Only as Good as the Villain
When your central character has powerful opposition, this increases tension. The more powerful the opposition the more we doubt our hero’s ability to overcome the opposition. How is the hero going to survive against this guy, much less defeat him? That should be the question in the audience’s mind. To get them asking this question, you should show your villain in action – show the audience just how powerful this antagonist truly is. While everyone knows the hero will succeed in the end, just how the hero will overcome the villain becomes the source of tension.
The problem with many stories is that they leave no doubt that the hero will win. The art of storytelling is one of convincing the audience to override their understanding of story outcomes. People instinctively know the hero will win. The hero almost always wins. What the writer must do, is convince them that this time it will be different. There are a few ways to do this, but a good technique is misdirection. Structure story events so that no character is safe, and this may plant just enough doubt in your audience to generate tension.
Giving the audience more information than the characters’ possess can lead to suspense, which in turn leads to tension. If the audience watches the killer hide in your hero’s closet, then every scene the hero is in until this confrontation has increased tension. If the hero returns home and begins sorting his stamp collection, this would ordinarily be a boring scene. If we know someone has planted a bomb under the table, the scene suddenly has a tension that belies the actual actions in the scene.
Surprise versus suspense is a choice writers often face. A surprise, an unexpected turn of events or a sudden twist can jump start a story and generate the doubt necessary to create tension. Surprise is a quick jolt of the unexpected. Its effect at maintaining interest is usually short-lived, but its effect in creating tension can last longer. Don’t over use surprise because with each use it loses some of its effect. When surprise is used in conjunction with suspense, the result can be a tremendous boost in tension.
When the stakes are slight, so is the tension. The stakes at hand must be vital to the main character to be vital to the audience. The stakes can be anything, saving the world to saving an old playground, but whatever they are, the stakes must be relevant and important to generate tension. For example: pretend you’re in Vegas playing poker. If your entire life savings is in the pot, the stakes are high. Imagine how nervous you would be as the cards are turned. This is tension at it’s best – concentrated into single actions that can change lives. On the flip side, if you plunk a nickel in a slot machine – there isn’t much tension there. In short, increase the stakes to increase the tension.
The Ticking Clock
Putting a time limit on actions increases tension. Look at it this way. If James Bond has to save the world some nebulous time in the future, the tension deflates. He can go on vacation, play baccarat in Monaco, get a pedicure. There’s nothing driving the story. If on the other hand, he has 24 hours to save the world. Tension ratchets up. This technique is so effective; it has become cliché, but you can vary it to give it an aura of originality.
Tension can only be achieved when the audience cares about your characters, but once they do, tension can become a powerful tool to tell compelling stories.