Writercraft: Dos and don’ts of building tension

This is my attempt to basically complain about things that kill the tension in books, movies and tv shows (but mostly books), and how I think it can be fixed. Let’s just jump straight in, shall we?

So–tension. Tension is the driving force behind plot, so building it is essential, even if you’re not writing a mystery/suspense/thriller/horror novel that depends on that on-edge feeling your readers should get when you do your work well.

No one starts reading a regency romance and wonders if the fiery, secretly passionate heroine will really end up with the roguish man she has an instant, fiery hatred for. Of course she will, there’s a picture of her half-dressed in his arms on the front cover. This isn’t a bad thing! Readers knowing what to expect (to an extent) hopefully means more satisfied–and thus repeat–readers.

No, the problem comes when the threat/deadline/question that should drive tension is underpowered, or unrealistic.

Will the main character maybe lose the job they could survive without and don’t like anyway?

Will the main character leave the partner they clearly aren’t interested in anymore (and nearly immediately replace them with the love interest they have far more chemistry with)?

Will the over-foreshadowed ‘twist’ ending come to pass? ie. Obvious loophole in a prophecy, too obvious traitor etc


 

abyssinian-cat-1246731_640.jpg

Will the helpless cat survive the death-defying plunge from the table?!?


Foreshadowing probably deserves its own post, to be honest, because there’s a tricky line to walk. You want it to be effective, noticeable in retrospect, but not obvious. Sort of like everyday make-up. If someone is looking they know what it is, but it’s usually only obvious when you know it’s there already. An a-ha moment just before or after the reveal.

What you don’t want¹ is for readers to be rolling their eyes waiting for the very noticeable penny to drop. For the main character with a distinctive birthmark/hair colour/eye colour to be revealed as the long-lost princess.

For the mysterious stranger to reveal they’re a master swordsman who can teach the protagonist everything they need to know just in time, who long ago swore to never take another apprentice, but can perhaps this time make an exception.

For the rival love interest to be revealed as a secret sibling to conveniently put an end to the now tiresome love triangle, and give the main character and their true love interest a neatly packaged happily ever after.

It gets boring, and if it lasts long enough can drive readers away. So! Because I know I rambled (even) more than usual, here’s the short version of my dos and don’ts list that I am just now deciding on.

DO:

  • Give the threat weight, make it something that would hurt the main character in a real way. And if the threat comes to pass, don’t magic away the consequences immediately (if at all). No one wants the whole comic book dilemma of ever-increasing stakes leading to over-powered superheroes, or hollow threats (I almost died just now, but god forbid I miss the big dance!²)

DON’T:

  • Have the threat (or the main character’s understanding of it) be hard to understand. I’m all for complicated plots, but there’s something to be said for the chosen-one-novice trope. It allows problems to be broken down into small, easily explained chunks without breaking the flow of the narrative. Obviously if you can do this without resorting to tropes, do so. Have your MC take a student, or explain things to a pet, or overhear a local folktale about the monster they’re hunting. Original ideas don’t exist, but there should be something unique about your work that will make someone buy it over the next one, or the cheaper one, or the bestseller they saw on that one tv show.

DO:

  • The ending should be satisfying, and make sense. You don’t need to talk down to your readers, but unless you have a reader base that’s committed to understanding and appreciating your work (in which case why are you reading my blog? Please tell me how to be you), you need to do enough of the work that it’s fun and relaxing for them to finish it. Don’t provide a box mix, make the cake, and have the decorations all chopped up and ready to go in little bowls, so they get to do the fun decorate-y bits. Hopefully that analogy didn’t get too mangled.

DON’T:

  • Rely too heavily on tropes/foreshadow too You want to suggest the idea of something being possible (but really hard/unlikely/carry a heavy price). You don’t want to have readers rolling their eyes and skipping pages to get to the good bits. It should all be good bits!

On that note, I think I’ll end this here. Short and sweet, and hopefully helpful. Feel free to comment any questions you have, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

 

¹Unless you subvert it by using a red herring to draw attention away from the real reveal, but this can get annoying if done more than once, and is an even more difficult line to walk

²Disclaimer- I think Buffy (the tv show, not the comics, I’ve never read them) is one of the few works I can think of that switches stakes like that, but a lot of characterisation went into making the mismatched stakes³ work, and the entire premise of the show was essentially making fun of the whole idea of one ordinary person being responsible for the world every two days, and somehow being capable of being an ordinary person in her off time.
As always, these are generalities. If you think you can Joss Whedon it up and make it work without killing the tension, go for it. Broken literary techniques can make for very effective art if you do it right.

³Ooh, prime pun opportunity there, but I shall nobly resist!

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