Guest post by Bridget McNulty
Tension is the secret sauce that ensures that “I’ll read just one more page before bed” feeling. Four ways to ensure your story has the right amount:
1. Create a conflict your characters care about
Before you plan your story’s main conflicts, choose carefully. You want to create conflict that your characters care about. What does your character want to achieve and what could stand in their way? Conflict can be as seemingly insignificant as an internal struggle or a relationship breaking down. Or it can be as large as fate itself.
What matters is not the size of the conflict but how much the character (and thus the reader) cares about the outcome. The conflict must threaten the things most important to your characters. The first step? Work out your characters’ first goals and the rising and falling action.
2. Allow an ebb and flow of tension
The last thing you want is for your story to read like an endless episode of The Amazing Race — with tension after tension and no breathing spaces. Your goal is to keep people reading, not to wear them out! You need quiet periods to build character and subtle plot points — gaps in the excitement to let readers fall in love with the characters.
It’s important to pace your suspense, and while the big moments may grow until you reach the climax at the end of the book, along the way there should be smaller moments of tension and ease, too.
3. Raise the stakes — again and again
Your story will be too quick (and predictable) if your protagonist tries something and immediately succeeds. To maintain suspense and tension, your protagonist needs to try and fail a number of times. Or, if they succeed in reaching their goal at first, adverse consequences must lurk in the background.
To ensure rising conflict throughout, keep in mind the rule of threes. This simply means there should be two unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem before the third succeeds. Don’t you often try a few times before you succeed? We want art to mirror life in this way.
Brainstorm rising and falling plot points and create two situations that take your character further from where they want to be before an event improves their situation. This is less a hard-and-fast rule than a reminder that success is often hard-won — the interesting and exciting type of success, that is!
4. Keep your reader curious
How did you feel the last time you read a really great book? Curious, engaged, excited? One of the keys to sustaining tension in a story is to keep the reader asking questions — particularly important for keeping readers engaged in the quieter moments of your story.
Essential to keeping your reader curious is to create characters who are interesting even when not in a state of emergency. Weave in questions your readers want answered. Try to raise these at the ends of chapters in particular, so you create a sense of propulsion to the next event — just enough so the one-more-page-before-bed becomes another, and another, and another.
Bridget McNulty is an author, journalist, and editor. She studied Creative Writing at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before writing her first novel. Bridget is also cofounder of NowNovel.com.