Tension is one of those elements that I recognize when reading, but find hard to define. The formal definition of tension is literature is “the interplay of conflicting elements” but I think the definition of tension in physics is more appropriate- “the pulling force of an object on another object.” Tension is that invisible string that propels the characters and the reader through the story. It’s the piece that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Tension is necessary to some degree in all novels, but it is especially palpable in thrillers. Since I’m working on a thriller I’ve been thinking about tension a lot. I thought I would share my completely incomplete and entirely subjective conclusions.
Tension is a close relative of conflict: tension and conflict go hand in hand. If a scene is falling flat and lacking tension, it’s usually because it’s close relative, conflict, is missing. Every scene should present a problem for the character to solve, and along with it, an obstacle or antagonist that gets in the way. Opposing forces create natural tension.
Tension goes hand in hand with stakes: Nothing ups the tension quotient than high stakes. If the reader knows the outcome of the scene will have big repercussions, they’ll be invested in the outcome. Raising the stakes for the character is a great way to increase tension.
Impossible choices: A close relative of conflict is the impossible situation, where a character is faced with an impossible choice with no good outcome. Come to think of it, this is really a blend of conflict and stakes.
Mystery: Nothing propels a reader through a story better than a good mystery, with clues planted and new questions raised along the way. And if the clues and discoveries raise the stakes, even better.
Cliffhangers: Nothing gets me turning the pages more than a good cliffhanger. Ending a scene or chapter at the climactic moment, at the moment of a huge reveal or while the character is peril, is a surefire way to keep readers turning the page well into the night.
Ticking clock: Does the character have a limited time to solve the problem? Are the stakes big if the character fails? Is the reader constantly reminded of the time slipping away? Instant tension.
What would you add to this list?