Tension is what keeps a reader interested in the progression of the story. If the reader doesn’t feel any concern about how the story will end, they will lose interest. Below are some tactics for creating tension.
Character-related tension: When developing characters, there must be points of tension built into their character arc. This often includes goals they will struggle to reach, important consequences or stumbling blocks they will face, personality traits that lead to choices that hurt themselves or others, or backstories that create barriers to success.
In my Destroyer Series, Libby Sparks knows her inquest will reveal secrets she been trying to keep hidden her entire life. In the chapter leading up to inquest, her thoughts are consumed with what will happen once she’d revealed, and whether she’ll survive the night.
Opposing goals that create tension: A single character may have opposing goals (high profile career and stable family life), or multiple characters may have opposing goals that interfere with the other person’s goals (both want the same partner or job). This doesn’t have to be just in the form of the protagonist/antagonist. Characters involved may go back and forth between the two roles.
Sanford and Dahlia have opposing goals in the opening of Life & Being. Sanford is determined to reconnect with Dahlia and warn her of increased police activity on campus after witnessing a suspicious exchange between and another student. All Dahlia wants is to be left alone with her secrets until she can escape her father and his ever-tightening control. Their goals start to align once they both start to realize nothing either of them believed is actually true, but their early opposition creates a great deal of tension between them on all levels.
Raise the stakes: As soon as a character reaches a milestone, present a new complication to reaching the next one. There should, of course, be lulls between points of tension to give the reader a break, but the overall tension should continue to rise as the story progresses toward the climax. When outlining, be sure to pair every step toward development with a stumbling block.
Eliza Carlisle can’t get a break from the stakes being raised in any the mysteries she’s involved with. After spending five years in hiding, she comes to New York to attend culinary school (a major milestone for her!) only to realize she’s moved into the most bizarre building in the city. Just as she makes peace with the fact that she can’t afford anything else, a neighbor turns up dead.
Question-related tension: Never make the path to success or the HEA so obvious that the reader never questions it. Problems and complications should push the reader to ask how the character will resolve or overcome a challenge. A unique story arc should always have the reader questioning how the characters will reach the end, even if they “know” it will end happily.
Everything Kate says or does creates questions for Sam in Torino Dreams. Her past is a mystery, as are her sudden disappearances. Even when she finally begins to open up to Sam, more questions arise about how she can possibly survive what’s coming after her and her adopted son.
Tension though internal/external conflict: Most stories need a balance of internal and external conflict. As a character overcomes an internal conflict (establishing self-confidence), present an external one (a parent is diagnosed with an illness). Allow flaws and weaknesses to complicate the character’s path of development by letting them make bad or hurtful choices. This forces them to reevaluate themselves and their goals or priorities. External conflict takes the story out of the character’s hands, briefly, and puts the focus back on the story arc.
In The Crazy Girl’s Handbook, Greenly faces both types of conflict in order to keep the tension (and laughs) going. Argeeing to babysit her nephews puts her face-to-face with blind date she bailed on, thanks to her sister’s games. She not only has to battle her own self-perceptions and fears about relationships, the universe seems out to get her with one mishap after another, including Roman’s angry ex-wife.
Remove filler to improve tension: Evaluate scenes for their relevance and importance. Lulls in tension are important, because they give the reader time to process and think about the characters and story between points of tension, but if a scene is merely filler and accomplishes neither tension nor contemplation, it will only slow the tension to the point that readers might lose interest.
Withholding information to create tension: Only give the reader as much information as they need in a scene to understand it. Hold back enough to urge them to keep reading and get to the next scene. This is especially important with revealing backstory or mystery/suspense elements.
Uriah and Claire spend almost the entire Twin Souls series dealing with withheld information. Their tribe’s myths and legends are a part of their heritage, but they discover step-by-step that most of what they grew up believing are either lies or have been twisted to mislead. The reader leans bits and pieces along with them, unraveling the mystery of Claire and Uriah’s bond one page at a time.
Time-related tension: Putting a deadline on a goal creates an overarching tension. Don’t just set a deadline and forget about it, though. Find ways to remind the reader of the deadline AND what’s at risk if the deadline isn’t met.
Date Shark Eli Walsh is put on a deadline when his friend Ana discovers he’s falling for the woman she asked him to help by acting as her dating coach. If he doesn’t fulfill his promise to Ana, she’ll end her friendship with him and make sure Leila cuts him off as well.
Use pacing to improve tension: Be aware of pacing when considering tension. A scene only needs to last as long as it takes to relay information and provide character/story development. Start and end with action in each scene and skip the day-to-day elements that don’t add anything. Also, match the scene length to the type of tension. High tension scenes tend to be shorter and more explosive, while scenes that reveal something slowly are usually longer and build progressively.
The Someone Wicked This Way Comes Series is filled with tense battles and moments of contemplation while Zander and Vanessa Roth struggle to control their frightening powers and learn the truth of where they came from. Where the battles are intense and concise, the moments where they’re investigating or exploring their love interests give the reader time to take in the information more slowly.