Agent and writing instructor Donald Maass believes in creating tension on every page of a novel. In fact, he goes so far as to say that this one factor can be the difference between a novelist breaking out, or not.
Without a doubt the most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest. The ratio is mathematic, the result positive, so why do so many writers believe they can ignore the equation? (Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 174)
I’m less inclined to think that writers are purposefully ignoring the concept. Rather, some may not have learned they need tension on every page and some may believe they have it simply because the story–every page–interests them.
Tension goes beyond interest, however. Tension drives a story forward and makes a reader want to know what will happen next. But how exactly do you create tension on every page? Donald Maass gives several suggestions.
Primarily tension comes from conflict, so Maass advises novelists to build a novel in scenes. “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end” (ibid. p. 174).
He also suggests eliminating the “aftermath” scene, sometimes referred to as the sequel, in which the protagonist re-groups and decides what to do next. Rather, a fairly common practice in vogue today is to use the “jump cut,” moving from the end of one set of complicating circumstances to the beginning of the next.
In addition, Maass gives a valuable suggestion about exposition–the “self-talk” which shows the reader the inner workings of a character. If the character’s thoughts are nothing more than a rehash of what has happened, there’s little tension. Rather than showing the protagonist trapped in a dilemma, struggling to resolve his situation, he may instead appear to wallow in indecision and self-pity. Not only is there low tension, but the character may come across as whiny. It is better to leave out internal monologue that doesn’t create tension.
In my own reading and in a spate of superhero movies, I’ve discovered that tension sags when an event is predictable. Even the most action-packed scenes can feel boring when a reader or viewer knows the outcome ahead of time. Tension, then, is created by an unknown outcome.
It’s also created by the personal. If something deadly is about to happen to an unknown character, the tension is seriously reduced. Even our news outlets have learned this fact. An anonymous child goes missing, and people sadly shake their heads. A face is put to that child, with the story about her life, her friends, her interests, and suddenly the public cares deeply what happens to her.
In the same way, when writers put a face to a character, readers’ interest increases.
The conflict a novelist creates for his character, however, must be believable. A businessman on his lunch break accidentally steps into into an elevator shaft that the maintenance worker accidentally left exposed, but he breaks his fall because he happened to be carrying his dry cleaning. Well . . . not so believable. When events stretch beyond the point of credibility, readers may lose interest.
You’ll notice in that scenario above there were also a number of accidentals. Tension needs the unavoidable, not the happenstance. When a drunk leaves a bar and climbs into his car, readers know that danger is approaching. Whatever happens to that driver should be caused by his being behind the wheel in an inebriated state. He might cause an accident, get stopped by the police, even make it home only to have his wife react negatively. Whatever happens to him has been completely and properly motivated and will therefore seem to the reader as unavoidable.
Finally, to create tension, the events a writer takes her character through must be urgent–they should matter. Perhaps the hero is faced with a decision to go to a party or not go to a party. The situation won’t have tension unless something is at stake.
Perhaps the woman he’s in love with will be at that party, but she has a new boyfriend, so he must decide if the pleasure of seeing her outweighs the sorrow of seeing her with her boyfriend. That’s better, but if he has no chance of winning her back, the tension is still low. There’s not enough at stake.
Have you read through your manuscript looking for tension on every page? It’s a great exercise, and perhaps a must revision step before sending that baby out into the world.