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Along with excellent writing and an engaging plot, one of the most important characteristics of a great book is tension. Without it, readers won't feel compelled to keep reading or become invested in your characters. But what gives a book tension, and how do you keep your readers interested from start to finish?
Today we’ll talk about ways to increase tension in your book, which can be accomplished through your characters, your story’s structure, and even your writing style. Here are 12 tips to keep your readers turning pages to find out what happens next. And isn't that part of the fun of reading a great book?
1. Tension begins with your protagonist.
When you think about adding tension, the first opportunity you should consider is your main character. Your protagonist is about to embark upon a journey—whether that’s in outer space, in a new romantic relationship, or even traveling through the dark shadows of their own soul. And you want your reader to be with them every step of the way.
Think about the classic film The NeverEnding Story. In the movie, we see a child reading a thrilling fantasy adventure book, and by simply reading, he becomes part of the hero's journey. With every page, he follows Atreyu's exciting adventures, worries about obstacles, and encourages the hero to keep moving. This is exactly how you want your readers to feel. So where do you start?
Create a relatable protagonist.
While there are a lot of famous books that have unreliable narrators or main characters with suspect motivations (such as Dr. Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's classic novel), it's important for your readers to identify with your main character in some way. Even if the protagonist is completely different from your reader in every way, you must spotlight some universal human quality we all share if you want your reader to become emotionally invested in the person you’ve created. In the case of Dr. Frankenstein, for example, pretty much everyone can relate to themes like ambition, depression, and regret. And even his famous monster is sympathetic in his experiences of rejection, fear, and rage. The more a reader is attached to your character, the less likely they'll be to put the book down.
Establish inner conflict.
We don't always emotionally invest in characters just because they're nice. In fact, we instinctively respond to flaws and emotional turmoil—that’s more like real life. Apart from the plot of your book, think about the inner journey of your characters. Do they have a personality flaw they need to overcome? Are they hiding something? Do they suffer from terrible loss or a broken heart? Then, figure out how the internal struggles ties into your plotline. By establishing an inner journey that your main character must take, you give readers a second reason to care about the resolution of the story.
Keep your main character active.
Make sure that everything your main character does has a point—they should be performing actions themselves rather than simply being acted upon by other forces in the story. In each scene you create, your main character should be working to further the main external plot, advance the character’s own inner journey, or complicate another character’s journey. A passive character is a frustrating—and sometimes boring—character.
2. Tension should be played out in your plot.
There was a writing meme that went around a while ago that included a fantastic piece of advice: “Find out what your protagonist wants... and keep them from it.” You may love your main character and want them to succeed, but you can’t make their journey easy.
To make that journey tough—and more interesting—you can use unforeseen circumstances, other characters, and even physical challenges to create tension. The more obstacles that stand between your protagonist and their goal, the more satisfying it is when your character succeeds. To maintain tension throughout a story, your obstacles need to be increasingly difficult—and with much greater consequences if your character fails—right up to and including the final climax of the book.
Turn up the heat... or the danger.
Raising the stakes can be a great technique to keep readers engaged. Some classic ways of doing this are by creating time constraints (such as a ticking clock), inserting unexpected twists that make your protagonist’s path forward less certain (like pitting your character against a loved one), and making your character’s final challenge the most personal.
Try ending chapters with a cliff-hanger.
Finishing a chapter in the midst of a tense or dangerous moment is a technique that every author can employ, no matter the genre and even if you're writing nonfiction. Judiciously used cliff-hangers pique your readers' curiosity and play on their sense of anticipation. But be careful not to overuse this device; that can frustrate readers and actually decrease the overall tension.
Create opposing characters and motives.
Setting up characters and villains whose motivations and actions run counter to your protagonist's is another great method to keep your readers engaged. Think about the prison scene between Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs. She needs information from him, and he wants insight from her. Rather than just a stand-off, author Thomas Harris creates a tense exchange through “quid pro quo”—where each character reveals important information in a gripping, unforgettable scene.
Stop for the occasional breather.
While tension is most effective when it escalates, you do need to give your character—and therefore your reader—breaks between high-impact scenes. Like the dips in a roller-coaster, that much-needed laugh, warm moment, shower, or hot meal will prepare your hero for the harrowing ascent in the next part of their journey.
3. Make sure you use tension in your language.
We've talked about how to create tension in your character and in plot. But one of the most effective means of creating tension is actually in your writing.
Show, don't tell.
It's one of the big lessons in effective writing, and it definitely applies here. Rather than just reporting the events of a scene, draw your reader into it through dialogue, internal monologue, and body language; physical movement; and interaction with other characters.
Keep your language active.
Earlier, we talked about keeping your main character active throughout the plot. But this also applies to your writing. Make sure you use active verb tenses (and choices) and vivid descriptors. By keeping your voice dynamic, the reader remains engaged in what's happening.
Cut back on flowery language.
Long-winded and flowery prose can completely diffuse the tension by slowing the pace—in other words, letting too much time pass between actions in the story. Unless you're intentionally taking a “breather” after a really intense scene, be mindful not to use more words than necessary to describe a person, place, or condition.