Fiction writing of all kinds requires tension. Tension, also called suspense, keeps the reader flipping the pages to find out what’s coming next. Tension should build over time leading the reader through the adventure to a satisfying ending. Here are three elements of building tension in fiction writing.
Create conflict. The central conflict in fiction writing is tied to the main premise of the novel. In the case of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, the central conflict was the feud between their families that threatened to keep them apart. The best novels have more than one conflict to raise the tension and to hold the reader’s attention. Secondary conflicts involved Romeo’s battle with Tybalt and Juliet’s being forced into an arranged marriage with Paris. The more conflict in your fiction writing the better, but make sure you can resolve the extra conflicts before the end of the book, of the series if the book is part of a series, or the reader will feel like you have left too many loose ends unattended.
Use limitations. Limitations, whether physical, time, or emotional, provide a natural conflict for the characters. Limiting the amount of space the characters have to operate in or the amount of time they have to complete a task provides built-in tension. In Walking Across Egypt, Clyde Edgerton starts off with one of his two primary characters stuck in a broken chair. She can’t get out without help and, luckily for her, the second main character comes along. In 48 Hours: A City of London Thriller, a blackmailer threatens to kill J Jackson Bentley’s main character, John Hammond, if he doesn’t pay a whole lot of British Pounds within 48 hours. Time and physical limitations instantly create suspense in fiction writing.
Raise the stakes. In fiction writing, nobody does high-stakes better than spies and superheroes. Ian Fleming’s master spy, James Bond, always has to save the world from a lunatic with a death ray. Every super hero from Superman to The Green Lantern fights a super villain to save the day for the rest of us. The higher the stakes are the greater the suspense. Even in romances the stakes can be raised. When the hero or heroine is about to marry the other guy or is ready to move to another city, that’s when the love interest has to come running in to stop the wedding or keep the plane from taking off.
Using these three techniques to create suspense in your fiction writing will keep readers coming back for more.
Revise a chapter in a manuscript you’ve already started. Look for ways to create conflict, use limitations, and raise the stakes. Feel free to post your before and after if you’d like to share.