One way to think about it is you are raising the stakes for your character, so he or she has to work to get what he or she wants. And this shouldn’t be easy. Basically, you want to keep saying no to your characters so that the conflict appears unsolvable. The more at stake for your character, the more emotions he feels about situations and events.
Tension can take many forms.
- Anticipation of conflict
- Unexpected events – sometimes the reader knows what is coming, but the character doesn’t and sometimes both are surprised by what happens.
- Fear of secrets revealed
- Impending doom/sense of urgency
It is the author’s job to figure out how to produce these in the story.
Often once one obstacle is conquered, another one crops up. But while good fiction is full of tension and suspense, it needs to vary throughout the story. You need to turn down the intensity for short periods.
Remember that back story slows things down. So don’t add it during the exciting scenes. Leave details about the character in question until later in the story. Give the reader enough that they won’t be frustrated but basically leave back story to those slower moments in the book.
How much you insert these slower periods will depend upon your story needs and the demands of your genre. But just because you slow down doesn’t mean the momentum stops. It is simply a pause or time to turn down the drama a notch or two. Sometimes these lulls are simply the calm before the storm.
Tips for creating tension:
Short sentences – short, choppy sentences with active verbs signal tension. Think of your sentences matching your protagonist’s racing heart. Avoid long sentences filled with adjectives and adverbs.
Show, don’t tell – rather then “He was nervous.” Write: “His hands trembled.”
Cliffhanger – leave them hanging
The stakes in fiction matter because the stakes create tension. Your protagonist’s happiness and perhaps even his life, depends on the outcome of the story. If the stakes in the story are low, then the tension will be weak.
The stakes can be linked to an inner conflict where your protagonist wonders if what is at stake is even worth it. In this case, the character may reconsider his beliefs and values.
It is the stakes of the story – the tension – that keeps many readers hooked to your novel.