Tension! Tension! Tension!
Great books have tension that keep us involved in the story.
We looked at tension in plot (Monday’s post) and character (Wednesday). There is another area of tension writers use in crafting the story: tension on the page. Tension on the page or micro-tension includes a diverse set of techniques:
Yes, that’s what I did at the end of the last post. It wasn’t a great cliffhanger and wouldn’t cut it in a book, but it was a decent example for this craft discussion. Cliffhangers at the end of chapters and scenes add tension and encourage the reader to keep reading.
Hook should appear as first lines of chapters and scenes and at the beginning of a book–these should create a feeling of tension in the reader, a type of tension that makes them want to know more, know what is going to happen next.
This is the tension on the actual page. It includes small questions and also white space (elision). It encourages the reader to want to know what will happen very soon in the story. It is also what keeps our eyes moving to the next sentence and what keeps us turning the page. (For a great article on white space see the article, “The Shadowy Landscape of Dreams” by Janet Fox (who for good reason calls this gray space) in Hunger Mountain, VCFA‘s journal of the arts.)
Subtext is what is not said during dialogue. Dialogue with subtext adds spice to a story. Subtext lies under the surface and also adds tension. This is one of my favorite forms of tension.
This creates questions . . . and tension. There are lots of variations and styles of foreshadowing, from a blunt omniscient narrator telling us something bad will happen to subtle use of images and events which lightly foreshadow later events.
In some cases the setting will naturally create tension–like in an adventure book set in the outdoors. Many books use setting to create the atmosphere. In other cases, what the character or narrator notices will create an undercurrent of sorts, and that creates tension.
Each genre, as well as every individual book, will use a different mix of these techniques. Also, each technique should be applied in the best way for that story. For example, I would craft a cliffhanger differently for a “quiet” book than for a thriller.
Although many aspects of tension show up in my initial drafts, tension is one area that I look at when I revise. Sometimes looking at tension helps me sort out problems that I’m facing with either character development or plot; this is because I am looking at the story from a different angle.
What other ways do you use tension in your writing? I’d love to hear your ideas and what works and doesn’t work for you as a reader and writer.
Thanks for joining me in the Tollbooth this week.
~Sarah Blake Johnson