How to Build Tension and Up the Pace

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Carrie De Simas

© Rudy De Simas

Carrie De Simas

Editor in Chief @ GoneWithTheWord

No matter the genre or plot structure, tension is what makes or breaks a novel. Without it, you have a humdrum connection of events that won’t hold the reader’s attention. For example, open the book with a kid trying to rescue a cat stuck in a tree. He gets the cat down and returns Garfield to his owner. So where is the tension? Hint: it isn’t there.

Here are five ways to ignite tension:

  1. Emotion is an essential ingredient of surprise, Alfred Hitchcock.  If we don’t care about the character, we won’t care that she is being chased by a serial murderer or that the hero is about to lose the girl. Quickly make us care about the characters and then throw in the tension.
  2. Show me the money! Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire.  Show us the goal and why it is so important. This means understanding the goal of the scene and book, and explaining why it’s so very important to the character.
  3. I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope, Stanley Elkin. Keep raising the stakes. Make the protagonist suffer and still refuse to give up. Every time it appears things can’t get any worse, throw in another obstacle or take away a tool that is desperately needed. This will show the value of the goal and the ultimate strength of the character.
  4. Any conflict, whether it takes place within the body or outside, is always a battle against the self, Taisen Deshimaru.  Show the reader what will happen if the protagonist loses. Make it big, make it dangerous (either physically or emotionally) and make it real. If he is finding a missing kid, that is important in theory. But if it’s his child, or if the child looks like his little murdered sister…that makes it emotional and makes him involved and committed.
  5. Revolution is not a dinner party, nor an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be advanced softly, gradually, carefully, considerately, respectfully, politely and modestly, Mao Tse-Tung.  Throw in an unexpected ticking time. Whether done literally or figuratively. Shorten the protagonist’s deadline and remove any time to weigh out plans and execute an intricate strategy.

Back to the kid saving the cat in the tree. We need to care about the kid, so throw in an emotional detail like he is an abandoned orphan (thus he can’t abandon Garfield) and kitty is about to fall.

Make the reader worry. Make them sweat it out. Make them chew off that last stub of a fingernail. That’s tension.

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