I love the suspense, the waiting, the anticipation as a novel unfolds. It’s my favorite part of reading a story. Sure I love it when the love interests finally get together or the murderer is finally revealed, but the really fun part is the tension: The anticipation of waiting for that moment. Because once it happens, well, that’s that. The conflict is resolved and the story is over.
Oscar Wilde put it aptly when he said:
The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.
When I open a book I want the author to make the fun last for as long as possible. I want to be teased, tantalized, and tortured. I want the author to make me unable to resist turning page after page–even if it is 3am.
It’s sort of like Christmas. I was the weird kid who loved waiting for Christmas Day to finally arrive. Sure I loved opening my presents, too, but I loved the anticipation, the mystery, the suspense. Unlike my sister, I never begged to open gifts early. Why would I want to ruin the surprise? Even then I couldn’t resist tension.
Your goal as a writer is to make your novel like Christmas for your readers. Make them wait. Make it agonizing and exciting. Make them curious and eager. Then, when the moment finally arrives, give them what they’ve been waiting for.
So how can you keep the reader’s anticipation high in your novel until that big moment when the conflict is finally resolved? Here are 3 mistakes you’ll need avoid to handle your tension like a pro.
1.You Make Things Too Easy
If your hero isn’t facing any challenges as he works towards his goal, or is overcoming them while hardly batting an eye, things are going to get boring really quick. Your hero needs to struggle. The struggle is what keeps your readers interested. Lack of struggle means lack of conflict, and conflict is what story is all about.
When there’s conflict there will be a winner and loser in the outcome. This leaves your reader to wonder nervously whether the hero will succeed or fail. And although it might go against your instincts to do so, you must let your hero lose sometimes. If your hero wins every battle, the reader will have no doubt he’ll defeat the villain in the end without a problem. And that will destroy your tension.
Sometimes your hero will make the wrong decision. He won’t be fast enough, or strong enough. He will be outwitted by the villain. He won’t be able to save everyone. And that’s okay! It will deepen your hero’s struggle, and make for better fiction. Let your hero lose.
2. Your Characters Are Too Nice
If all of your main characters get along perfectly well throughout the whole story, your novel is going to be a real drag for the reader. Fiction is always more fun when characters are at odds with one another. When they fight, disagree, or mistrust one another it creates conflict, and therefore tension. Readers can’t resist these sorts of dynamics.
Think about Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in the BBC series Sherlock. Sure they’re best friends, but Sherlock drives John nuts and they often fight. How boring would the show become if they were perfectly civil and agreeable towards each other in every episode? Yawn.
Or, what about the dynamics of the characters Cassandra Clare throws together in City of Bones?
You have Simon who secretly loves Clary, but Clary doesn’t return his feelings. You have Jace who’s interested in Clary and jealous of Simon. Both Simon and Jace hate each other. Alec doesn’t like Clary or Simon and is irritated with Jace for breaking the rules. Isabell and Simon flirt with each other but Clary resents Isabell for toying with her best friend.
Conflict and tension abounds!
If your characters are all sitting around a campfire holding hands and singing kum ba ya, it will suck all the tension from your story.
3. You Resolve Your Conflicts Too Early
Once, a writer asked if I could give them advice on their story’s middle. Readers had complained that the middle was too slow and boring. The writer couldn’t understand why or how to fix it. After reading the story the issue quickly became clear: the writer had resolved the conflicts too early.
With the conflicts resolved, there was no tension–no anticipation of what was to come. So there was nothing to carry readers through the story’s middle, and that was why they had lost interest. Eventually another conflict was introduced, but you don’t want to risk losing readers even for a moment.
Make sure you draw out your conflicts for as long as possible–if you can, don’t resolve them until the end of the story. And if your story demands that one conflict be resolved, make sure you introduce another either just before or directly after its resolution.
At every point in your story, make sure there is a question on the reader’s mind so that they must keep reading to find the answer. Will the hero slay the dragon? Will the girl find her brother? Will the cop catch the criminal?
Keep readers wondering and you’ll keep them reading.
Need more help on creating tension? I’ve written an entire e-book on the topic called “The Page-Turner Project”! Click to check it out!
What ruins a story’s tension for you as a reader? Let me know in the comments!