How to create tension in a story in 8 steps:
Step 1: Create engaging and dynamic characters with opposing goals.
Step 2: Choose a conflict that is important to your characters. Their investment in the outcome will create investment in the reader.
Step 3: Keep raising the stakes: Your story needs several points where tension reaches a peak.
Step 4: Allow tension to ebb and flow: Don’t make it so relentless that readers don’t get a breather.
Step 5: Keep making the reader ask questions: Uncertainty and the need to know are powerful storytelling tools.
Step 6: Create tension both in characters’ inner lives and in the world around them.
Step 7: Make sure there are multiple sources of tension (examples: an up and down love affair, workplace politics, grappling with an antagonist or environmental hazards)
Step 8: Make the story unfold in a shorter, more urgent space of time.
Some discussion of these steps in greater detail follows. You can also get feedback and help on writing tension into your scenes in our online writing groups.
Create engaging characters
Your readers need to care what happens to your characters, and in order to make your readers care, you need to first engage them. Many writers feel that they need to write characters who are likable, and this is certainly the best way to guarantee reader identification. However, if for some reason you need to have a viewpoint character who is not likable, you can still make the reader care about that character by making the character interesting and engaging in some way.
For example, think about some of the best villains you have encountered in fiction and film; you may not like those characters, but you are interested in what they are going to do next. Think about what keeps you interested in those characters, and use those techniques in your own writing. To create detailed character sketches, use the ‘character’ section of the Now Novel ideas finder.
Choose a conflict that matters
- Choose a conflict that matters. Keep in mind that the size of a conflict is not necessarily related to how much it matters. A conflict can be as small as an internal struggle or a relationship between two people breaking down or it can be as large as the fate of the entire universe at stake.The key is that the conflict has to be the most important thing in the world to the characters in your novel. In order to ensure this, you need to figure out what your main characters want more than anything and what they are most afraid of. Your characters should drive your conflict in order to create conflict that matters to them.
3. Keep raising the stakes
Your protagonist needs to try and fail a number of times, or if she succeeds, the problem needs to grow more complicated in spite of that success. There are a number of ways to structure your novel to ensure that you have points of rising conflict throughout. One way is to keep the rule of threes in mind. The rule of threes simply states that there should be two unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem before the third successful one.
This is less a hard-and-fast rule than a reminder that your protagonist needs to fail a number of times. The three-act structure is another pattern you can follow to maintain suspense across the course of a novel. In the three-act structure, you have several points where your tension rises to a peak such as near the end of the first act or first quarter of the novel, at the middle and near the end. Planning ahead so that your novel includes these points of high tension will help you keep that suspense at the forefront of your reader’s experience.
4. Allow your suspense to ebb and flow
While you may be tempted to keep a constant stream of exciting things happening in order to ensure that the interest of your readers never flags, this will in fact have the opposite effect. Not only do you need quiet periods to build things like character, but if it’s all tension all the time, your readers will simply become worn out. It’s important to pace your suspense, and while the big moments should increase in size until you reach the climax at the end of the book, along the way, there should be smaller moments of tension as well. In addition, some of those moments of tension should satisfy the reader with a resolution well before the ending.
5. Keep making the reader ask questions
You may be wondering how to keep your reader engaged through the quieter moments of the story. Of course, one way is with good characters, but you also do so by ensuring that you are always raising interesting questions that your readers will want the answers to. In particular, consider raising these questions at the ends of chapters so that you create the kind of cliffhangers that keep readers going long after they intended to set the book aside to do something else.
6. Create internal and external conflict and tension
When writers think about building suspense, they often think about conflict from outside. However, tension is strongest when it arises both from forces outside of the character and those within. In some cases, the two types of tension may reflect one another; a character who struggles with insecurity, fear of flying or a terror of public speaking may face an external conflict that brings that internal tension to the fore.
7. Create multiple sources of tension
The protagonist of your romantic novel may not only be dealing with unrequited love but also with her dying parent or a challenge at work. Your FBI agent protagonist may be experiencing tension with her husband. Think about your own life and the lives of everyone you know; we all deal with conflict and tension from multiple sources, and your characters should be no different.
8. Narrow the time or space in which a story unfolds
In a popular TV series like 24 or a best seller like The DaVinci Code, characters are constrained by a time limit among other tension-building devices. A classic mystery novel set-up in which a murder occurs at a country house over a weekend is a good example of using both of these constraints.
This approach is not suitable for every type of storytelling, but if you can narrow the story you are telling to a train or an island or other limited space or give your protagonist a few hours or days to solve the main conflict of the story, the tension in your novel will ratchet up.
What are some of the tensest moments you can think of from books or film, and what makes those moments so tense?