Instagram Creative Writing Class: Tension

18 May 2020

All great novels are powered by tension, whatever their genre.   Tension, intrigue and suspense are important in ANY novel.

‘Every story needs an element of suspense or it’s lousy’ Sidney Pollack

One of the most gripping scenes in the whole of English literature for me is in Jane Austen’s Persuasion when Wentworth slips Anne a passionate, confessional love note after overhearing her talking to a mutual friend. Nothing actually ‘happens’ in this scene. But it’s VERY tense.

The ability to captivate – to keep us reading late into the night – seems effortless in great novels, almost magical.  But what’s behind the magic?  And how do you do it in your own book? Here are six steps to start with.

Step 1: Figure out where the tension lies

Develop an ‘elevator pitch’ – a brief summary of your novel. This helps you figure out what really matters.

Step 2: Raise the Stakes

 You need there to be a lot at stake in your book – in Persuasion, it’s a lifetime of happiness. What’s at stake in yours? Is it enough to make the reader care? You can also gradually up the stakes as your plot unfolds – revealing more and more information as you go, and allowing things to get complicated and unravel so the reader thinks ‘oh, that’s not good.’ Then a bit later – ‘oh, that’s really not good’.

Step 3: Add obstacles

For Anne and Wentworth the obstacles are social, cultural, circumstantial, psychological. Obstacles can also be more basic (think of a character running from a villain, throwing chairs, wardrobes, doors in the way as they run – you want your reader to feel a bit like the chaser). 

Step 4: Add a ticking clock

In James Bond the villain is going to blow up the world but not next month – it’s happening VERY SOON. A ticking clock lends immediacy, fear, urgency.

Here’s a simple example: in my first novel, The Missing One, we have ticking clocks AND high stakes: a mad stranger has the narrator’s toddler on a remote British Columbian island. Will she get to her child before something terrible happens?

Step 5: Withhold information

It is much more compelling and intriguing to drip feed information to your reader as the novel progresses: offer hints and allusions, raise unanswered questions and your reader will be desperate to turn the page to find out more.

Step 6: Add dilemmas

You want the reader to be weighing things up – what’s right, what’s wrong, what would THEY do?

Four things to avoid:

1 Unrealistic events or people – nothing punctures tension like implausibility – the reader thinking: ‘but that would never happen’.

2 Weak characters – the more the reader cares about or believes in your characters, the more tension you can generate

3 Waffle: make every moment/scene/event in your book count. Know why it’s there. Cut it if it isn’t adding anything, no matter how gorgeous the prose happens to be.

4 Too many twists and turns: that just gets exhausting. The reader feels manipulated. You need a variety of paces. And you need to make it plausible (see 1 above).

‘Mystery is an intellectual process… But suspense is essentially an emotional process’ Alfred Hitchcock