It’s that sweet build-up of wonder, the feeling of exhilaration mixed with the unknown: who’s hiding around the corner, what’s going to happen, where’s this going next?
You feel it coming on like a distant thunderstorm before the first crack of cloud and rain. The sky around you subtly changes colour. The cows bed down in their fields. And, is it your imagination or does the air taste different too?
It takes skill to craft the right amount on tension in writing. It takes practice and time to lead the reader onward and forward. Hooking them is easy enough, if you’ve got a way with words, but how do you keep them wondering? Guessing? Wanting more? Then, how do you leave them hanging off that proverbial cliff just so they’ll want to climb again?
In this age of media bombardment and hyper-stimulation it’s not as easy as it once was to catch and keep your readers’ attention. So it’s more important than ever to know how to draw them in and keep them within the boundaries of the limitless story you’ve created. You want nothing more than to pull them into the pages of your work just so you can engage their minds to fully roam and explore that world, those events, and these characters.
There’s no greater compliment to a writer than, “I couldn’t put your book down,” or “I devoured your story.” Good tension is one of the best ways to achieve that goal.
“The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” -Oscar Wilde.
Here’s how I attempt to create suspense in writing.
- Create characters that have something to work for, an objective or a goal; then make them engaging and memorable, and give them an opposing force or antagonist.
- Invest your characters in the pursuit of their goal. Make them work for it. Don’t give things to them easily (other than real flaws, which help readers identify with them).
- Raise the stakes, push characters away from their goal enough that readers feel it might not be possible to achieve; but use hope constantly, in the background, to make readers want the character to succeed (play on reader empathy and concern).
- Use each chapter as a mini-backdrop in the whole book’s ‘rise, peak, and fall’; but at chapter breaks leave the reader hanging off each mini-peak with a leading question or uncertainty (until the moment when the climax is reached and the main conflict is fully resolved, when the ‘fall’ becomes story conclusions).
- Inject multiple sources of tension into the storyline. Make secondary characters or other events important and weave them together with the main plot to create more wonder, being careful not to over-do it (too many unrelated conflicts/characters can get confusing depending on the age of your audience).
- Infuse urgency into the scenes that require more anticipation through word choice, dialogue, and action: cut off sentences, make characters move, drop the ball and let it roll away…, then make the readers chase it.
- Engage readers’ senses in the writing. It’s raining sheets on the other side of the lake, moving closer as if pushed from behind by giant hands made of wind. I blink and the sky changes colour from summer blue to fire-pit grey. The air around us suddenly tastes and sounds like it’s chewing on tinfoil, spitting out sparks. We wave the kids in from the dock against their pleas to stay. “Hurry! It’s coming! RUN!” Arms flail. Feet slip on grass. Goosebumps prickle my thighs as Danger speaks to the dark corners of my mind, ‘Get out of the water, take cover or I’ll get you.’ Metallic air crackles as they reach the porch just in time, soaked and laughing. Thunder roars overhead. We towel them off and wonder how long it will last as rain smashes on the cottage roof and the storm engulfs us. “Did anyone bring candles?”
- Balance dramatic tension with calmness (used similarly to protagonist-antagonist).
- Use plot twists in unexpected moments and places to push your character/story in interesting directions and keep readers engaged.
- Keep dialogue real but tighter, condensed, more intense and less boring than everyday talk. Don’t speak about the weather, spread niceties or humdrum details of everyday life. Let characters speak and act through dialogue as they tease, argue, and mislead and interrupt one another. Never use dialogue to teach the reader something that the ‘speaker’ should already know.
The storm passes and the sun peeks out from behind the curtain of cloud like a shy child.
“Let’s swim,” she says.
“It’s safe?” he asks.
“Lightning’s gone Dumbo.” She runs to the waterfront. His shorter legs chase behind; her perpetual, younger shadow.
They count to three and jump from the dock into the water that now feels like a bathtub compared to the air around.
“No more lightning but did Mom tell you about the huge fish that live in here?” she asks, and then slips beneath the surface where he can no longer see her.
Something brushes against his ankle…