Tension is essential in stories that will resonate with readers. As a reader, you know the feeling – staying up way past your bedtime because you can’t put that book down. This post is a short introduction to crafting tension that will have your readers hanging on every word.
Rule number 1: story is conflict.
This is the only rule.
Conflict pits your main character against any number of obstacles, whether human (classic antagonist), natural (think earthquake or tornado), emotional (boy loses girl), or other (society, science fiction element, etc.). Conflict is generated moment by moment, scene by scene.
Conflict creates tension, and results from the stakes. Your protagonist’s stakes must appear in your opening pages. High stakes create high tension.
Without tension in story your reader will yawn, put your book down, and watch some mind-numbing reality TV show instead of reading. Please don’t subject your readers to mind-numbing reality shows.
To create tension you must create conflict ON EVERY PAGE, because your ultimate goal is “to create a satisfying emotional experience for the reader” (James Scott Bell, Conflict and Suspense.)
Bell – one of my favorite craft authors, by the way – takes this one step further, and suggests that in any emotionally satisfying novel the stakes have to be death. The genre doesn’t matter; whether it’s comedy or tragedy doesn’t matter. The stakes are death.
According to Bell, there are 3 kinds of death: physical, professional, and psychological.
- Physical death. Win or die. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones…thrillers, murder mysteries, much scifi and fantasy, etc. Those are the stories that explore physical death.
- Professional death. The death of the dream. The death of future dreams. For teens this can also mean death of the young self to be replaced by…? Think Because of Winn-Dixie, and Holes. Think of novels in which the teen is a failure in school or with peers and turning a corner into adulthood. What kind of adult will this kid become?
- Psychological death. Dying on the inside. Romances, angsty teen novels, comedies all contain psychological death. Catcher in the Rye, every teen romance are examples.
Obviously, you can also combine these: Twilight is some combination of all three (which may be one reason for its success?).
Exercise: take your favorite can’t-put-down novel and try to identify the death stakes. Check out the level of conflict on every page. Share here, if you like!
I’ll have more on conflict in an upcoming post.
Thanks for this great post, Janet! So now I’m thinking about my MC – how is she dying??? Great advice!
Exactly!! Bell is one of the best, and this “death stakes” idea has been transformative for me. Thanks Kiri!