Plot or characters are always mentioned as the most important parts of writing a story, but tension is equally important. Tension is what will keep your reader reading. Your characters may be interesting and hilarious, and your plot intricate and detailed, but tension is what keeps the reader hooked. Every scene needs to have a purpose and move the story forward — that’s what the plot is for — but every scene also needs to give the reader a reason to turn the page. What do they want to discover? What are they hoping will happen? Will they discover the truth? What are they waiting for? These questions lead me on to my first of five ways to create tension in your story.
1. Pose questions
Always have the reader looking for an answer to something. This is usually done by having the character also look for the answer. Mysteries are good at keeping tension heightened because the reader and protagonist are so aligned with what they’re searching for.
Having one big question raised at the start of the book and solved at the end can keep a degree of tension present throughout the story, but tension works best if it’s heightened further into the story. Build upon the questions. I particularly enjoy stories where lots of questions seem to be unanswered but then all the problems come back to a single question. This is similar to when you think there are multiple antagonists, but then it turns out every evil act leads back to a single antagonist.
As an example, here are some of the questions raised at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:
- What’s special about Harry?
- How did Harry release the snake?
- Where are the letters coming from?
- Who’s knocking on the door?
- Who’s Voldemort?
- How’s Harry going to find the train?
- What’s Hogwarts like?
There are so many questions raised before Harry even arrives at Hogwarts — this is only some of them — and you keep reading because you want to know their answers.
Basically, create tension by ensuring there’s something for your reader to question at every stage of the book.
2. Unreliable narrator
If the reader’s trying to find the answers to questions the protagonist doesn’t seem overly worried about it can be incredibly frustrating. This frustration creates tension because the reader will want to know when the character will have a realisation. They want to know when the character’s ignorance will catch up to them, and if there will be any consequences to their ignorance.
An unreliable narrator also increases tension because of the lack of trust between them and the reader. You don’t know if you can trust them, which leaves you with a constant level of discomfort. Unexpected moments could occur at any time, despite the narrator possibly trying to lull you into a false sense of security. You never know if what you’re reading is accurate.
3. Relatable fears
Emphasise the characters’ fears. If a character’s afraid of something it can be carried over to the reader. They’re reading about how terrified someone is and hoping they can get through it. They’re on their side.
Everyone has fears or has felt fear at some point in their life, so they know what the character’s going through and don’t wish it upon them. Making the cause of the fear quite common means more readers are likely to relate to it. It’s discomforting, which doesn’t sound very pleasant to read, but you keep turning the pages because you need to know what happens. You keep reading for the same reason you keep watching a horror or thriller movie. You need to know what happens.
4. Character relationships
Relationships up the stakes and increase tension. There’s more to lose and therefore more to worry about losing. When romance is involved the reader usually wants them to end up together at the end. This means when there’s a conflict they’re more invested in wanting a happy outcome.
Friendships can be even more important than romantic relationships in stories. There’s usually a greater risk of the friend being killed, and the group dynamics can become very complicated because of it. Friendships can be even more impactful on character development than romance, as there are multiple influences and friendships have often existed for longer.
5. Real deaths
Have characters die. It’s awful and I’m sure most people hate having to write character deaths, but if you want to prove that the risk of a situation is real it’s unlikely all the characters will make it. When I say real deaths, I mean real deaths. The character doesn’t come back. No resurrection. No ghosts. And no time travel to save them.
This can even relate to the protagonist. Just because they’re the focus of the story doesn’t mean they’re safe. The protagonist dying isn’t a plot point I’ve read very often, but I have read it.
I don’t think a protagonist should be killed just for tension. There should be a purpose or a message conveyed if this is going to happen. Deaths are more impactful and authentic when they make sense for the story. As devastated as I was by Sirius’ death in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I understood that Voldemort and his Death Eaters needed to prove how threatening they were. They needed to pose a real threat to Harry’s goal towards finding family and friendships. Sirius’ death showed the terrifying impact Voldemort could have upon Harry’s life.
Writing helps tension
All these points can help increase tension in your story, but I also think writing has a lot to do with it. If a character’s the richest, happiest person in the world but doesn’t care about their wealth, the reader may not either and wouldn’t worry about them losing it. If a character has ten thousand fears but they’re not portrayed believably, the reader’s unlikely to care about their fears.
Use tension to encourage the reader to care about what happens in your story. Make them care for the consequences, the aftermath, and the worst that could possibly happen. Make the reader care for the characters and you’ll make them care for your story.