Writing page-turning unputdownable literature is what every author aspires to. A reader can pay few greater compliments than to say a book had kept them up all night – perhaps at the risk of going about their following day with weary eyes but a mind still churning from the residual adrenaline. What motivates a reader to commit to such happy exertion? Tension.
TENSION ON SURFACE LEVEL
Tension evokes an emotional connection between the reader and the character(s). It compels the reader to assume the interests of the character(s) as his or her own. It may even elicit physical responses in the reader as it coils and unfurls with the progression of the story – quickened breath as the stakes are raised, sigh of relief after the climax has come to pass. However, it is not to be confused with conflict.
CONFLICT AND TENSION
I’ll admit that until very recently, I believed tension and conflict to be interchangeable since they tend to work in close association. To be more accurate, conflict often leads to tension but tension is not an inevitable end of conflict. Conflict constitutes of more evident elements within the story, i.e. forces acting against each other to prevent a character from achieving his/her goal(s); tension works in the abstract and can be best defined as the anticipation that is aroused and quieted via the pieces of information that is gradually revealed during the storytelling process. Conflict is a movement within the plot that provides the story with a reason for being; tension succeeds in moving the reader in tempo of the plot by hinting at “possibilities” of what could be. However, while it is ideal that conflict helps to build tension and, thus, the reader’s need to discover “what’s next”, once again, this is only possible where the reader has formed an emotional connection with the characters, scenes, and situations in the story.
TENSION ADDING LAYERS
And since tension is build upon the uncertainty and anticipation of what is to come, it may work at various levels – from creating a momentum where the character(s) and reader absolutely share in the emotional undertaking to where the experience is exclusive to the reader – depending on how much information of the story is revealed to either/both the character(s) and the reader. Tension may exist within a particular character (inner turmoil of the protagonist), between characters (information gap resulting in misunderstanding), in every scene (moving the story forward or backward), and in the overall story (central conflict that moves towards a climax and resolution). In some instances, tension may also exist between the narrator and reader to which the character(s) may remain absolutely oblivious (an unreliable narrator perpetuating a deception). However, whatever form in which tension reveals itself to the reader, it is a vital ingredient in storytelling that ensures the author has captured the audience for the duration of the tale and, as authors, we had best know how to use it.
STIRRING UP TENSION
Characters & Conflicts That Matter. The reader is bound to be more invested in the story if it depicts character(s) with whom the reader is able to relate. Also the reader needs to be able to believe in the stakes that are raised when imposing the challenges on the character(s). When the characters are interesting and dynamic and the conflicts are compelling, the reader’s interest is piqued.
Secrets & Hesitations. A common cause for tension between characters in stories is the failure to impart relevant information. If characters made a point of always being open and honest with one another, seven out ten of challenges to their sustainable relationship would probably resolve before even occurring. And we would have no story. So instead, authors cultivate a sense of insecurity that induce character(s) to hide information from their various counterparts. In return, such actions not only spread misunderstanding but also a sense of secrecy that may lead to distrust. When villainy is the objective of the day, a character may willfully withhold information to foil the bliss of the hero/heroine. Such gaps in knowledge within the realm of the tale may lead to the audience to commiserate in the woes of the character(s), motivating them to see it through to the end.
Audience Knows More. Often the narrator reveals facts sooner to the audience than to the character(s). As an outsider, the reader is privy to information that an omniscient narrator possesses but of which not all the characters are yet aware. Reader knows what to expect whereas the characters do not and the tension builds around the uncertainty of how soon will the characters figure out the truth for themselves and how they will react when they do. In such a case, a sense of superiority may also act upon the reader to stick to the story. However, when applying this mode, the narrative must be arranged in a context where the truth would not be as obvious to the character(s) as to the reader.
A Gradual Reveal. While the audience may anticipate situations sooner than the characters in the story, it is also important not to show one’s hand too soon. Pacing the narrative where only fragments of information is revealed at a time can proliferate the reader’s innate desire to solve the mystery.
Forward & Retreat. Even as the plot progresses, scenes may be written to divert the characters from reaching resolution. New challenges may be added even as old ones are managed or the character’s stakes in the outcome may be raised.
The Right Atmosphere. Sometimes it all just boils down to the setting. Tension in the world surrounding the reader may filter into the character’s life. Admit it, walking down an empty corridor in your workplace during the day would feel relatively innocuous when compared to walking down the same empty corridor one evening when you had to stay back late. If we manage to successfully spook ourselves in real life, the same anxiety born of a sense self-preservation exists in the characters we write. On the other hand, in such a situation, which reader wouldn’t want to vicariously investigate the passing shadow of a person in the periphery of the character’s vision?
A Clipped & Monosyllabic Style. An author may also inject tension into the writing style. Using shorter words and sentences may pack a punch to a tense scene that profound and roundabout passages could miss out on. It is the same rule that applies when developing a character who is meant to be foreboding. And since I must, take Mr. Darcy for example. Mr. Darcy was intense and he hardly ever said a word in the initial acts of Pride and Prejudice unless he was forced to and, even when he began to open up a little, it was only to pontificate on topics most essential to his own self-worth and salvation.
P.S. ON TENSION
However tension is implemented in the story, the author must also ensure there is a balance on when and how much tension the reader is exposed to. Tension must be given opportunity to ebb and flow so as not to overtax the reader. Just as tightening the tension can propel the reader to continue turning the pages, reader must be allowed moments of reprieve to release some of the tension without having to put down the book.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL MAY NOT BE A GRIPPING READ BUT THE SUBJECT IS NECESSARY AND RELEVANT NEVERTHELESS.
Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!