How to Craft Tension and Create a Page-Turner in Fiction Writing

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aramita star

© Araminta Star Matthews

Araminta Star Matthews

Guest Writer @ GoneWithTheWord

In a world of media so riddled with zombies, Araminta Star Matthews owes part of the success of her zombie fiction franchise to two key elements: strong characters who happen to be young women, and an ability to craft the knuckle-grinding tension so apparent in her first book, Blind Hunger.

Tension Tip #1: Use Fact-Based Descriptions

When I was an undergraduate, I had the honor of working with John D’Agata, professor and awe-inspiring author of Halls of Fame. He once described an experience working in a cinema as a support person for the visually-impaired. His job was to describe the visual elements of a film for his clients. Because his clients wanted the experience of the film for themselves, he quickly learned not to embellish his observations as he described them. The power of observational description far outweighs our desire to control a reader’s inference. Describing only what can be observed forces readers to create a clearer mental picture, and that’s tension 101. Observational description includes size, shape, color, distance, and lengths of time. What cannot be observed includes emotion, emotional state or attitude. Tension is more easily created by saying “The man clenched his fists into red-rimmed balls until the skin stretched tight and white against his bones,” than by saying “He clenched his fists tightly in fury.” 

Tension Tip #2: Get Into Your Body

One of my favorite strategies for inducing tension is theatrics. As a thespian, I have learned how to convincingly express an emotion to an audience using only body language. I use this skill when writing a tense seen. Combined with the first tip, illustrating the movement and tension of my characters’ bodies by first acting it out in my own body has a powerful effect on readers. When a character feels fear, pull fear into your body through memory or imagination. Then pay attention to the sensations you’re experiencing. Tight jaw? Tense neck muscles? Grinding teeth? Or shivering? Hands trembling? Shallowly gasping? 

Tension Tip #3: Slow down

The tension we witness in cinema typically involves a planted device, such as a killer in the basement or a loaded gun on a table, followed by a benign sequence of events. The woman comes home balancing a bag full of groceries on her hip while she laughs into her cellphone. She places the celery from her bag on the table near the gun laughing at another joke, and then walks in front of the basement door unaware of the killer waiting behind. The focus on this benign event is meant to slow down our experience of fear so that it becomes more tangible. Plant the seed of fear in your reader, and then spend some word count on something light. It will make that bitter moment that much more terrifying.

 Araminta Star Matthews is primarily a writer of young adult supernatural fiction. Her books include Blind Hunger, The Warehouse, Write of the Living Dead, and, most recently, Horror High School: Return of the Loving Dead coauthored with Stan Swanson.

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