Building tension is essential to keep readers engaged and invested in your novel.
While some genres will employ these techniques with more gusto, like mystery and thriller, they can be used in all fiction genres.
Conflict is a key to building tension, and there are three main ways to add conflict. Obstacles, conflict between characters, and emotional turmoil. Each layer of conflict should raise the stakes and consequences when the characters fail or achieve their goals.
Throw obstacles in your characters' paths that make it difficult for them to achieve their goals. These can be external challenges.
The antagonist can thwart the protagonist's plans.
Physical barriers can be placed in their way, like a chasm they must cross or a military blockade.
Each obstacle should increase the pressure on your characters.
Conflict between characters.
Develop conflicts and tensions between your characters. This can be based on opposing goals, differing values, or personal histories. Use dialogue and interactions to create friction, misunderstandings, or heated confrontations.
The clash of conflicting desires and beliefs adds layers of tension to your story.
Emotions can be a powerful source of tension. Put your characters through emotional turmoil by challenging their beliefs, placing them in morally ambiguous situations, or forcing them to confront their fears. Even self-doubt works.
Inner conflicts and emotional struggles increase tension and provide opportunities for character development.
Control the pace of your narrative. Speed up the tempo during action scenes by using shorter sentences and simple sentence structure. Slow it down during scenes of reflection or anticipation. Longer, more complex sentences can be used to slow the pace as well.
Build suspense by delaying important revelations. Holding back on answering questions creates curiosity to find out what happens or the motivations of characters. Readers become more involved and try to solve the mysteries you present in your novel.
Letting readers in on information the characters don't know is dramatic irony. When readers are aware of dangers or hidden agendas, the tension increases. They anticipate the moment when the characters discover the truth.
When characters discover the truth, the scenes should be suspenseful and emotionally charged.
Foreshadowing hints at future events or outcomes, creating anticipation and unease. Plant subtle clues throughout the story that something significant or dangerous is coming. Readers will try to piece together the puzzle and anticipate what happens next.
Introduce a sense of urgency by incorporating time pressure into your narrative—sometimes called the ticking clock. Deadlines, countdowns, or imminent threats heighten tension as characters race against time.
Play with reader expectations by subverting or challenging your readers. Surprise them with unexpected twists, reversals, or betrayals.
By defying their assumptions, you keep readers on their toes and increase the unpredictability of your story.
Remember, tension should be woven throughout your narrative, not just confined to specific moments. By strategically implementing these techniques and maintaining a balance between suspense, conflict, and resolution, you can effectively create and sustain tension, captivating your readers until the end.