How To Create Nail Biting Tension
Several years ago, I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I decided to revisit the book in audio version. I prefer audio versions of novels when I want to dissect the writing techniques of the author. Larsson mastered the art of tension. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, tension is the substance that glues us to your words.
There are many techniques writers can exploit. There is the ubiquitous cliffhanger which sometimes comes off as a bit contrived. Other more nuanced methods create greater tension.
Larsson used several of these in his novels. One technique he employed had me driving around the block three times so I could hear how it played out before pulling into my garage.
One of the characters, Henrik Vanger, hires a main character, Mikael, to do two jobs for him. The first job is just a cover for the real job. Vanger explains the first job in detail. Withholding info about the secret job builds the tension as the reader wants to know the real reason he hired Mikael. He then reveals he wants Mikael to investigate a disappearance. He explains it’s a murder and that the killer is still alive, despite it being almost forty years later. As a reader your thinking, “how could he be sure? There’s something he’s not telling us.” And so I drove around the block several times waiting for the big reveal.
The concept in its basic form is simple. Reveal the end state. In this case, the end state is that Henrik is sure someone murdered the girl and he’s sure the killer is alive.
Don’t reveal how you know it to be true. Hint that you will share why it is true. Now, the reader knows the character holds a secret to a question he wants answered. Further, the reader also knows the question will be answered, at some point. Reveal the secret in drips. Each piece of info builds one the one before. That is tension. If you’ve read the book, you know this setup leads to a surprise at the end. But that’s a story for another day.
There are other elegant methods to create tension. Let’s look at a few more.
I Know Your Secret
One character keeps a secret from another character. Let’s call them John and Jane. Jane knows John’s secret, but John doesn’t know Jane knows. The reader knows that Jane knows. Jane reveals that she will confront John. You follow? Here’s an example.
John is cheating on Jane.
Jane discovers John is cheating on her. The reader is aware too.
Jane calls up John and speaks in a stern voice. “We need to talk. Meet me at Sunshine Park at 5:00 PM.”
All the events leading up to that confrontation build the tension.
A third way to create tension is to have your characters keep secrets from each other. It can’t be just any secret. It must be a secret of profound importance. In my upcoming novel, the antagonist is planning a coup against the protagonist. The reader knows the plans of the antagonist. The protagonist underestimates the impending danger. During the buildup, there are hints available to the protagonist and the audience wonders if he’ll piece together the plot in time to take the appropriate countermeasures.