Favorite Writing Advice: Adding Tension to Your Story

 

by John Briggs

One simple idea can give your story much-needed tension.

One phrase — one sentence, really — can help most authors make their stories more tense, more dramatic, more gripping.

“If your characters ever meet you, they should punch you in the face.”

I don’t know who said it, but that may be the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, most authors don’t seem to follow it.

So what does it mean? How do you get your characters angry enough that were they real, they’d want to punch you silly for all the things you put them through?

 

Four Ways to Add Tension to Your Book

Don’t take it easy on your characters. Follow the three D’s: Disappointment, Danger, and Dire Straits. In fact, if you can, have your character experience all three. No matter what the genre, your character can experience disappointment. Even in a hard-boiled war novel, a character can watch a comrade die, lose the battle, or fail to get promoted.

Even in the softest piece of chicklit, a character can experience danger, whether a threat from a lover, the fear of a secret romance being discovered, or a vengeful neighbor/relative/friend. Not all danger has to be physical or deadly. It can simply be a threat to a way of life, security, finances, etc. In other words, dire straits. Whatever you choose, give your character obstacles to overcome.

 

Don’t wrap up problems too quickly. Remember Indiana Jones? Every time it looked like a scene was about to end, something went wrong. Those scenes went on for ten minutes without ever feeling like it. Yet, authors often seem to be in a rush to wrap up their characters’ problems. Just remember, nice, neat chapter endings don’t push the story forward.

It’s rare that an argument ends with a nice cup of coffee and a heartfelt apology, so why should it for your character? If your character is locked in a room (whether real or metaphorical), don’t have them suddenly discover a hidden key. Make them work to get through their problems, even if it takes several pages or chapters.

 

Keep the problems coming. One problem should lead to another, should lead to another, should lead to another… or maybe three or four problems at once, because if you think juggling three balls at once is hard, try juggling them when they’re on fire. Problems can wax and wane, but they should keep coming, and in different spheres of the character’s life.

Personal, professional, expected, unexpected — you name it, keep ’em coming. It doesn’t have to be a breakneck pace, but it has to be often enough to hold our attention — unless, of course, you’re writing a thriller — then keep it at a breakneck pace.

 

Create problems big and small. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus faced the big problem — the trial — as well as even bigger problems, like an entire culture’s prejudices, a small-town’s biases, threats to his children, and smaller ones, like raising Scout and Jem as a widower. Heck, he even faced a rabid dog. Not all problems need to be huge. After all, life gives us big problems and small problems, often simultaneously, so mix it up.

And while you have to build your problems to build tension, meaning your conclusion needs the biggest problem of all, don’t be afraid to drop in small difficulties, even annoyances, along the way. It will keep your readers engaged and rooting for your character(s) to persevere.

 

So there it is. Make your characters hate you. After all, if you knew someone was pulling the strings — playing God with your life — wouldn’t you be angry if they didn’t take it easy on you? For not making your life cotton candy and milkshakes? That might make for a good life, but it makes for bad fiction. In the end, I want my characters to metaphorically punch me in the face while screaming, “How could you do this to me? What’s wrong with you? Don’t you have children of your own?”

Which is part of the problem. A book, and by extension, its characters, is an author’s baby. Oh, it’s easy to heap misfortune on your villain(s), but it’s hard to hurt your heroes. You want your antagonist to get his comeuppance, but good authors come down hard on their protagonists, too. They try the very souls of the characters they love. It’s not personal; it’s just good literature.

So, ask yourself when writing your story, “Would this character want to punch me in the face after this?”

If not, find a way to make sure they do. And if they do, make sure they go for a knock-out blow.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by John Briggs. John has been a writer for nearly 20 years, starting out in newspapers and eventually spent several years as a nationally syndicated children’s TV critic. His book, Leaping Lemmings, came out out Sept 6th, 2016.

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20 thoughts on “Favorite Writing Advice: Adding Tension to Your Story”

  1. Wow, these are excellent points! I haven’t attempted a novel myself, but thinking it over I can see how all these are present in my son-in-law’s latest (HUGE) horror novel, which I absolutely loved when I read/proofed it. It’s brilliantly dreadful/dreadfully brilliant! Happily he’s now embroiled in writing a sequel – one of several, he tells me. Yay!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a wonderful way to break down conflict. It’s a struggle to keep the tension going. Writers either don’t want to put characters they love through more pain, or they don’t want to extend the length of the book. This is most true of outliners. They want to stay on track when it pulls away the tension. I’m a big fan of this blog. May I reblog it?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very true! I’m finding it hard to want to put my character through too much, as well as the worry of finding the right length in wrapping scenes up (I don’t want it too long and boring, but too short might make me seem lazy and keep the reader wondering). Thank you for the tips!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John, Thanks for that wonderful advice. Also, a writer can end a chapter with the character’s internal thought as: “Should I go? If I do, it could ruin everything.” Now the reader wants to read the next chapter to see if the character makes the decision and what are the consequences from said decision.

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  5. When I’m writing problem after problem I’m often thinking, is this too much? Will a reader get bored with all these problems? But like you said, that’s what keeps the story going. Give ’em hell!

    Like

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