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Here, from the Storytelling section of my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. is “Four ways to create tension.”
We all have plenty of tension in our lives, so why on earth would we ask—no, demand more? Because it feels good in a page-turner story. What happens when you don’t deliver a simmering dollop of tension on virtually every page of your novel manuscript?
The agent sends a rejection.
The acquisitions editor says, “Pass.”
Agents and editors all want to discover an outstanding story. They want to be compelled to turn your pages. But they see so many hundreds of submissions that your storytelling needs to be almost perfectly irresistible to get them to go much beyond page one.
Tension doesn’t have to come from bloody, balls-to-the-wall action; it can be torment inside a character’s head, or a verbal duel in a courtroom, or delivering the diagnosis in a doctor’s office.
Nor does it have to come entirely from the main conflict in your story. Donald Maass talks about using bridging conflict when you’re not focused on the main pain.
Thriller writer Tess Gerritsen wrote in her blog about a talk by Donald Maass and hearing about his notion of “continuous microtension.” In a story with a high level of conflict, she says, there’s “. . .an underlying sense that something important is always about to happen, or could happen.”
Tess added her take on the technique.
Microtension is that sense that, on every page of the novel, there’s conflict in the air, or that characters are slightly off-balance. It needn’t be a flat-out argument or a gun battle or a huge confrontation. In fact, you can’t throw in too many major conflicts or what you’ll get is melodrama. But small and continuous doses of tension keep the story moving and keep the pages turning.
Frustrate your character
In a critique group member’s novel, she created a simple but effective bit of tension during a question-and-answer session at a public meeting. The protagonist raises her hand to ask a question. Someone else is called on. She lowers her hand. She tries this a couple more times, but is still not called upon. She feels frustration, and her own tension builds. Finally, after being passed over yet again, she decides to just leave her hand in the air. The reader thinks that surely this will succeed. She’s ignored again. Finally she waves her hand and gets to ask her question. So, while the main tension in the scene was building at a slower rate, there was still pressure.
Add character spin to create tension
The way the doc in this cartoon spins the facts reveals his bias and agenda. Every few years, a political season inundates us with politicians spinning each other’s words and positions in order to distort and contrast them. I once hated the idea of spin…until it occurred to me that spin is a terrific way to create drama in a story. Spin comes from agendas, the intentions of characters. When characters want something in every scene and words and actions are guided by conflicting agendas, you automatically generate tension, and characters boil with action and dialogue.
Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing, uses the idea of agendas as “scripts” when he talks about the Actors Studio method for developing drama.
For example, let’s say Faith, a compulsive gambler, is accused of murdering a sleazy bookmaker. Best friend Percy believes that Faith can do no wrong. Daggett, the district attorney, believes Faith is a liar who will do anything to get rid of a staggering debt to the bookmaker. On the surface, Percy and Daggett share a goal: to learn the truth. But differences in their internal views and agendas spin what they think, say, and do…
Percy screeches his car to a halt in front of the brownstone. Faith had sounded frightened and desperate when she called. Rushing from his car, he finds her being led out the front door by the district attorney, Daggett.
Faith’s dress hangs in tatters and a bruise swells on her cheek. She staggers, and Percy races up the steps to steady her. Holding one arm as Daggett holds the other, Percy says, “My God. He tried to kill you!”
Daggett shakes his head. “That’s what she hopes we’ll think.” He wrenches Faith’s arms behind her back and hobbles her wrists with handcuffs.
Poor Faith. Spin also applies to how characters interpret information. On the political side, your orientation will add spin to the words “embryonic stem-cell research” that turns them into anathema, nirvana, or something in between. The same goes for your characters. And if two characters have different agendas, think what that can mean.
Percy believes Faith is innocent and wants to protect her, Daggett believes she’s guilty down to the marrow of her bones and wants to convict her. So here’s how those two characters spin the same input.
Faith’s determined expression wavers, then breaks. “I’m guilty. I did it.”
Percy shakes his head. She must be covering for someone. “How can you say that, Faith?” He glances at Daggett, who wears a smile that reminds him of a bear trap.
Daggett says, “Because she’s guilty, guilty, guilty.”
Clearly, agendas that are at cross-purposes spin up terrific tension. So ask each character in a scene these two questions:
- What’s your agenda in this situation?
- What do you believe the other character’s agenda is?
Then let ‘em duke it out…and don’t let either of them win, at least not for a few chapters.
Unsettle happy scenes with future jeopardy
Writer/agent Donald Maass writes of a need for tension on every page. Every page? Can’t a character have a happy time now and then? Not really, at least not unmitigated happiness, not if you want to compel. If there isn’t trouble in a scene, the reader must anticipate trouble to come. The ironic humor in the cartoon comes from the reader knowing about danger ahead that the characters don’t.
In a narrative, you can build tension the same way, by giving the
reader knowledge about danger ahead that the protagonist doesn’t have.
For example, here’s an innocent-seeming scene:
Steve gunned the engine and the boat surged forward. Laura rose from the water on her skis, unsteady at first, but gaining control. She was able to give him a quick wave and a big smile.
Steve started a turn that would take her near the dam, where the lake plunged into the canyon below. Spray cooled her sun-warm skin and the speed thrilled. The force of the turn sent her arcing out behind the boat, swinging wide toward the spillway and gaining speed.
She couldn’t have been more alive, nor more in love.
Steve is a serial killer who romances women and then kills them, and water is always an element in his modus operandi.
Because of this foreknowledge, the reader will feel tension from the moment Laura gets into that boat, and it will only build. Is she headed over the lip of that dam? You could call this a slow-burning fuse of continuous microtension. You plant a bomb, light the fuse, and then carry on with the reader tensing for the explosion. You put it off. . .and off. . .and off. . .
You don’t have to create overt conflict on every page—a story with strong stakes and consequences makes it possible to use impending conflict to keep building tension in a reader. There will be tension on every page even without direct conflict. Have those happy moments, but create “when-will-the-trouble-I-know-is-coming-strike?” story questions that foreshadow trouble which will damage or diminish the protagonist.
For what it’s worth
© 2010 Ray Rhamey