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Tension Building Techniques in Depth



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As requested, this post dives deeper into building tension and has examples!

 

Tension is essential in all fiction.

 

Whether your genre is fantasy, mystery, dystopian, sci-fi, etc. you want to build the tension in your story to have a page-turning novel.

 

But how do you build tension?

 

We will cover the top five, tension-building techniques for fiction.

 

  • Conflict  - Conflict between characters  - Internal conflict  - Roadblocks

  • Cliffhangers

  • Foreshadowing

  • Time Pressure

  • Defying readers’ expectations

 

For conflict, think about the confrontations you’ve had in your life. In the moment, the tension was high. Adrenaline rushed through your body. You probably got hot, maybe even shook with anger.

 

Now think about a time when you struggled with something mentally challenging, some hard decision you had to make. Your mind came up with pros and cons. Your gut may have said one thing, but your head said another. This is internal conflict.

 

Conflicts can also be physical barriers. I’m sure you’ve driven somewhere and came upon a roadblock or a detour. It’s frustrating. Your arrival is delayed. Maybe you got upset because you would have made it on time, but because of the physical barrier, you could be late.

 

So, use your experiences to create conflict in your novels. Conflicts build tension, and tension is what keeps readers turning the page.

 

Conflict between characters and internal conflict

 

Let’s say my character’s life is going swimmingly. Jemma is lounging in her giant pool outside her mansion, sipping on mocktails. Sounds blissful!

 

But now I’m going to introduce conflict.

 

Jemma’s partner comes out, stands at the side of the pool with Jemma’s bags already packed, and tells her to leave.

 

Most people wouldn’t just get out of the pool, take their bags, and go. Chances are there’s a confrontational conversation that happens. Yelling, blaming, accusing, begging. Character conflict.

 

Their partner is steadfast in their decision. Jemma must go, but first, she has to change and collect anything her partner missed that she really wants.

 

As she goes upstairs, she’s still fuming and spitting insults, but no one can hear her. She enters the bedroom, and a memory hits her. Now, the internal conflict starts.

 

She recalls when they first moved in. They were happy, in love. They had the perfect house, the perfect life, the perfect marriage. Then she sees their dirty socks on the floor. Oh, how she hates it when they toss their dirty laundry all over the house.

 

She’s back in anger mode. She pulls open the dresser drawer and throws their clothes all over the floor. She won’t be there to pick up the mess, so why not?

 

But then she sees an unfamiliar pair of underwear and breaks down. All emotional turmoil/internal conflict.

 

The ups and downs she feels are due to her conflicting thoughts about her partner. She’s torn between anger and love and sadness.

 

When she’s done crying, she realizes she has to leave. It doesn’t matter who did what.

 

She calls a friend to see if she can stay with them. Her friend says it’s not a good time. Roadblock.

 

She calls another friend. They don’t answer. Roadblock.

 

She reluctantly calls her sister, who she doesn’t get along with and hasn’t talked to in years. Her sister can’t believe Jemma is only calling for a favor. A small argument ensues. Character conflict. 

 

After a few minutes, she says she is willing to let her stay for a few days until she finds somewhere else to go, but she has to get to her house by five, because she needs to catch a flight. Potential conflict.

 

Of course, as Jemma is driving to her sister’s, there is a traffic jam. Physical roadblock.

 

As the story progresses, Jemma’s situation gets worse and worse due to the conflicts she encounters. She has some wins, but mostly losses until the climax.

 

Cliffhangers

 

Use cliffhangers at the end of most chapters or every chapter, like Dan Brown.

 

Cliffhangers are essential to keep readers turning the page.

 

Cutting the scene off

 

Let’s say my character, Jemma, arrives late at her sister’s house and finds a note tapped on the door that says, “You were late. Next time, pick up the phone.” Jemma checks her messages and hears one that tells her where the house key is.

 

Now, I could leave end the chapter with Jemma listening to the message, but there would be no reason for the reader to turn the page. They already know Jemma will get the key and enter the house.

Or I could cut the scene off when she reads the note. That way readers will wonder what Jemma will do next since her sister already left.

 

I would choose to have Jemma read the note, but not listen to the messages. Readers will turn the page to find out what the note contains. The note stays a secret until the reader starts the next chapter, and everyone wants to know a secret!

 

Ending with an unexpected event

 

Unexpected events make great cliffhangers. Basically, an unexpected event is a new conflict or potential conflict, but when used at the end of a chapter, it becomes a cliffhanger.

 

Jemma brings her luggage into the house and puts it in the spare bedroom. She goes to the kitchen looking for something to eat. She’s thinking about what her life was and what she could possibly do to either get her partner back or how she can stand on her own, when someone bangs on the patio door, yelling for her sister to let him in.

 

End chapter.

 

Ending with a puzzling clue

 

Puzzling clues are great ways to end chapters. Clues are introductions to more secrets!

 

The man is adamant Jemma’s sister has a black duffle bag that he needs, and he’s not leaving until he gets it, yet he won’t tell her what’s in it or why her sister has it. She convinces him to leave by telling him she will call him if she finds it.

 

Jemma goes on a hunt for the bag and when she finds it, she opens it. It’s full of small bags with different colored pills inside them.

 

Now, the story just took an interesting turn. Jemma’s sister has a big secret. What reader wouldn’t turn the page to find out if her sister is a drug peddler and what Jemma is going to do with the bag, its contents, and her sister?

  

Foreshadowing

 

Foreshadowing is great for building suspense. You plant clues, especially at the beginning of your novel, to events or revelations that come later.

 

In my story, Jemma’s sister says she needs to catch a flight. Since she uses the word ‘need,’ it might trigger a question as to why she must go. Maybe her sister never travels by plane or maybe she never travels far from home, so it’s out of character for her.

 

I could have Jemma hear on her car radio that there is a problem with drugs being sold in suburban areas, maybe have the broadcast mention her sister’s neighborhood.

 

If I did that, though, I would push the man’s arrival and the duffle bag’s contents until at least the next day to delay the question, “Is her sister a drug dealer?” to add suspense.

 

Time pressure

 

Introducing urgency is a commonly used technique for building tension. This is sometimes called the ticking clock factor.

 

You set a specific time when the characters must do something by. Usually, this task sets up the climax. Will the character make it in time to stop the murder? Will they find the treasure before the antagonist?

 

There could be multiple time pressures. A serial killer, for instance. The antagonist could kill every seven days, then the main character would have multiple deadlines.

 

In the case of finding the treasure, the main character and the antagonist could be following clues. Each clue needs to be found first, so one character is ahead of the other on their quest.

 

For my story, I add time pressure by having the antagonist kidnap Jemma’s sister and give her a deadline for getting the drugs to them before they kill her sister.

 

Defying the reader’s expectations

 

Another way to build tension is to defy readers’ expectations.

 

Your readers will undoubtedly have expectations for how the story will play out.

 

They may assume the protagonist will complete the task before the deadline. The detective will find the killer before they kill again, or the main character will find the treasure before the antagonist.

 

But to defy readers’ expectations, the detective arrives too late. The antagonist finds the treasure before the protagonist.

 

In my story, Jemma’s sister looks guilty, but she isn’t. She was just holding the bag for the man who knocked at the door. He simply took the wrong bag from the gym.

 

Jemma arrives at the meeting spot to turn over the drugs, but the antagonist has already killed her sister. Or Jemma gets there on time, but the antagonist kills her sister, anyway.

 

The antagonist points the gun at Jemma. She flees and is now running for her life.

 

I’ve defied my readers’ expectations by having Jemma fail at a pivotal moment when the reader thinks she will surely win.

 

As the story progresses, I won’t stop the between-character conflicts, internal conflicts, or roadblocks set in their way.

 


Continuing the conflicts builds tension. Your readers turn the page to find out how in the world your characters get out of situations, solve problems, and eventually win.

 

I hope you liked this advice on building tension.


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Happy Writing and Revising!

 

Kristin Noland – Speculative Fiction and Crime Fiction Editor

 

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