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Tips for Building Tension

Updated: Feb 13


Kristin Noland Speculative Fiction Editor Crime Fiction Editor

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We all want that page-turning novel. That one we stay up into the wee hours of the morning to finish because we just can’t put it down. The way to create this type of book is tension.

 

Tension in fiction is crucial for keeping readers engaged with your novel. It makes them eager to turn the page and find out what happens next. It stirs curiosity, excitement, anticipation, and an irresistible desire to know how conflicts will be resolved and obstacles overcome.

 

While some genres will employ these techniques with more gusto, like mystery, suspense, and thriller, they are used in all fiction genres.

 

Creating tension can be achieved through

 

  • Conflict

  • Pacing

  • Cliffhangers

  • Irony

  • Foreshadowing

  • Pressure

  • Expectations

 

Conflict

 

Conflict is a key to building tension. Multiple layers of conflict and raising the stakes when characters fail to achieve their goals create tension and suspense.

 

1.      Obstacles

 

Throw obstacles in your characters’ paths that make it difficult for them to meet their goals. These can be external challenges, such as the antagonist and actual physical barriers, or internal struggles like self-doubt and contradictory motivations.

 

Each new obstacle should increase the pressure on your characters to increase the tension in your readers.

 

2.      Conflict between characters

 

Conflict between characters also generates tension. This can be based on opposing goals, differing values, or personal histories.

 

Use dialogue and interactions to create friction and heated confrontations.

 

 

3.      Emotional turmoil

 

Emotions can be a powerful source of conflict. You can put your characters through emotional turmoil by challenging their beliefs, placing them in morally ambiguous situations, or forcing them to confront their fears.

 

Inner conflicts and emotional struggles increase tension and provide opportunities for character development.

 

Pacing

 

1.      Control the pace

 

Speed up the pace during action scenes by using shorter sentences and simple sentence structures. Slow it down during scenes of reflection or anticipation. Longer, more complex sentences can be used to slow the pace as well.

 

2.      Delay important revelations

 

Holding back on answering questions creates curiosity to find out what happens, or the character's motivations adds suspense. Readers become more involved and try to solve the mysteries you present in your novel.

 

Cliffhangers

 

Many readers use a natural break to pause their reading. The ends of chapters are perfect for this. But what happens if there is a great cliffhanger? They turn the page.

 

At the end of most chapters, use a cliffhanger for tension and make readers need to know what happens next.

 

1.      Drop a huge revelation

 

In the last line of the chapter, introduce a puzzling clue, a cryptic message, or an unexpected event.

 

2.      Clip the scene

 

Some authors are cautious of clipping a scene, but this technique works extremely well.

 

Choose a pivotal moment of high tension or action and abruptly end the chapter, leaving the outcome unresolved so the reader must continue to the next chapter for the resolution.


Someone knocks on the door, and the reader turns the page to find out who is at the door. Because the reader wants to know what conflict this character will bring, they will keep reading!

 

Dramatic irony

 

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 will be suspenseful and emotionally charged.

 

Foreshadowing

 

Foreshadowing hints at future events or outcomes, creating anticipation and unease.

 

Plant subtle clues throughout the story that something significant or dangerous is coming. This builds tension and anticipation as readers try to piece together the puzzle.

 

Pressure

 

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.

 

Expectations

 

Play with reader expectations by subverting or challenging them. Surprise them with unexpected twists, reversals, or betrayals.

 

By defying their assumptions, you keep readers on their toes and increase the unpredictability and tension in your story.

 


Tension should be woven throughout your novel, not confined to specific moments but building as the story unfolds.

 

By implementing these techniques and maintaining a balance between suspense, conflict, and resolution in fiction, you create and sustain tension.

 

Your readers will thank you for it!

 

I hope you liked this advice on building tension in fiction.

 

Sign up for my newsletter or if you’re ready for editing, schedule a chat with me to find out how I can help you with your novel.

 

Happy Writing and Revising!

 

Kristin Noland – Speculative and Crime Fiction Editor

 

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