Improve Your Novel’s Tension

Novel writers hear it constantly: you must have tension on every page! Conflict! High stakes! Feet to the flame!
Writing Tip for Today: What are some ways to add tension to your novel?

  • Be scenic! If you are TELLING the reader what happens instead of SHOWING the reader, chances are you’ve summarized (narrative) what would be great tension if acted out as a scene. On the other hand, even experienced novelists often draft scenes that aren’t integral to the plot–thereby slowing the story, and rush a summary of the real meat of the story. If the camera can’t see what’s happening that matters, your reader will have more trouble imagining it, and by extension, caring. Caring equals tension, when a character’s goal isn’t a sure thing.
  • Use Complications! Think of your main character as a loser in the first half of the book. Your main character will win some scenes in the first half of the story–but very few. This allows you to force the character to face complications, which help make a story more meaningful and plausible. If you keep setting obstacles in your character’s way (up until your climax scene) you have a better chance of maintaining high tension.
  • Make it Mysterious! A mystery always creates tension–no matter the genre. If you broaden your story to include not only what the main character wants but what anyone in the situation would want, readers will identify and be hooked. For example, in the wonderful new novel by Jennie Shortridge, Love, Water, Memory, a woman and her fiancee struggle to come to terms with her amnesia. The reader empathizes with the woman and her fiancee, asking if anyone really knows/understands another person. The novel’s mystery is how she came to have amnesia, and pulls the reader forward in search of the answer.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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