How to create tension in your book
Let’s be honest for a moment. If I pick up a book and the author can’t pull me in within the first two chapters I’m probably gonna set that book right back down and move on. Why? Because I’m secretly an adrenaline addict. Not in the sense of wanting to jump out of a plane (shudder) or climb Mt. Everest (no way!) but in the sense that I love when a book gets my heart rate up.
Nothing makes me happier as a reader than to jump straight into the action. That’s probably a result of watching way too many action movies. At least I’m gonna blame it on that! So why shouldn’t books be the same way?
When you start a scene with an intense car chase, hand to hand combat, discovering a murder, or even a stolen kiss in a coat closet, you set the mood for the book. Don’t bore me with the details. Those can come later.
I like to think of it like using a whip. No, I’m not into that but it’s a good analogy. When you strike a whip you leave a sudden impact but it lingers long afterward. You want your initial scene to be thrilling enough that your readers will think about it long after they set the book down.
As a stay at home mom I spend much of my time playing with my son and doing housework. So needless to say I’ve got time to think. And if my mind isn’t wrapping around some new book idea to write then more than likely I’m pondering a book that I’m reading. This is exactly what you want.
So…how do you create that tension?
First off you need a killer first line. Writing one sentence may not seem like a difficult thing to do, but when you want those few words to pack a punch it can be difficult. Think about your scene. Think what sort of tension you are trying to portray and hit it.
Some examples right off the top of my head:
· “Dang it, I thought I already killed you.”
· I knew high school was going to ruin my entire life.
· “Why Miss Charleston, you are a bit of a tart.”
· The sweet aroma of blood was too strong to pull away from.
· I unfurled my wings and took to the air.
Ok. Obviously some of them are better than others…but I just thought of five in about a minute so give me some slack!
With each one you can get a hint of what the book is about. Fighting to the death, teenage angst, saucy romance, and two fantasy openers. All of them could be good setups for your initial tension.
Now…you’ve got your first liner. If not, keep thinking about it. Next, think about where you want the scene to be set. Unlike movies, books don’t have the luxury of adding the creepy music when your character is creeping down a hall, so you’ve got to do that with words.
Using the above example you could describe the shadows in the hallway that mare your vision. How the aged floorboards under you creak loudly. Tell about the mice that scurry out of your path. Describe the dried blood stains on the yellowing wall paper. Perhaps add in some kind of music that floats down the hallway from the only door standing slightly ajar.
Discuss rapid breathing, racing pulse, beads of sweat forming on the brow. Make your hands calmly or your throat scratchy. Describe the agonizingly long walk down the hall and the slow push to open the door.
Now at this point, readers will expect one of two things to happen. Either the attacker will leap as soon as the door shifts or you will be forced to search the room, creating even more anticipation. Either one will work just fine.
But if you want to be different…think outside the box. Maybe your attacker is lurking in the shadows of the hall and attacks from behind. Or maybe he is wedged near the ceiling above and drips blood onto your shoulder, alerting his presence. Or he could be waiting out on the ledge (he’s crazy, right?) and bursts through the window. Or…he’s not even there.
Those are all of the fun bits that you get to choose for your story. But it’s not the “where’s the boogie man?” that creates the tension per se. It’s the lead up to finding him.
Think of your own book. How can you, in just a couple pages, hook your reader but not give away the entire book? Dangle that carrot until they are salivating and then rip it away. Kinda gross to think about but that’s exactly what authors do. If you are struggling to figure out how to create your own first chapter, try looking at some of your favorite books for some ideas.
Once you’ve completed your first chapter, you need to keep upping the ante. Create roadblocks in every chapter that your main character must overcome. Add in an overbearing parent who watches you like hawk, an ex-boyfriend that won’t take no for an answer, create a new enemy, or throw a wrench into the murder mystery (a literal wrench would be kinda cool!).
You get the picture. Each chapter needs to build upon the last. But don’t send your readers into cardiac arrest. Along with tension needs to come release. A kiss, meeting one goal, discovering a clue, even a simple moment of eye contact can ease the tension just enough.
As soon as you’ve released the tension, grip back on and start wringing tighter and tighter. Depending on whether or not your book is a stand alone or going to be part of a series, you need to think about an ending. Do you want it to be explosive and leave your readers begging for more or sum it all up for a satisfying completion?
For me, even when I’m writing a trilogy, I want there to be action all the way up to the end and then a moderate release. It’s the teaser for the next book that ups the tension again.
Whatever you choose to do, plan for the tension. It’s a thread that needs to weave throughout your entire novel.
Good luck and most of all…have fun with it! If you’re not having fun writing, what’s the point?