Tension Comes in Many Forms
Tension is one of the best means to hold a reader’s attention and keep them from putting your book down. It is also a feeling that isn’t always clearly defined. If you ask for an example of what adds tension to a story, the first response you often hear is actually an action scene. The problem with that answer is: action isn’t necessarily tension. The car chase through Paris in the movie “Ronin,” is fantastic action. However, the movie’s tension isn’t the high speed pursuit and crash at the end, but comes from the conflict within the group of mercenaries gathered together to obtain a valuable suitcase. Some are trustworthy, others are not. The viewer is on the edge of their seat throughout the movie, wondering if Jean Reno, or Robert De Niro, or Stellan Skarsgard is a traitor.
In any genre there are different ways to inject the story with tension. I write romances so I am going to use a scene from my story Golden Chariot. Charlotte Dashiell, my heroine, believes that the characters from The Iliad, by Homer, may not have been fictional but real. She engages in a heated discussion with Atakan Vadim, the hero. For every point she makes, he presents a challenging counterpoint. I will paraphrase the dialogue form the scene.
Charlotte said, “The story of Troy and the war was retold through the centuries. I’m saying it wasn’t a mere war story. It had to be more.”
“No. The bones of the story were given to him (Homer)...a tale which happened to include a few accurate details. Like many bards, he filled it with people from his imagination.”
“Something made the story unique. I say it’s the people.”
“He took bits of old tales, injects the legends with heroes and villains for entertainment purposes. Why do you dispute the logical?”
This is a small section of the scene’s dialogue. Atakan’s disbelief, his doubt and the fact he forces her to defend her beliefs is a source of tension between them.
Combining tension with action can be especially fun to write. As authors we can vicariously live experience with our characters. In the following, Charlotte, who’s a nautical archaeologist and part of a shipwreck recovery team, is out swimming in the sea near the team’s campsite. Unbeknownst to her, there’s been an undersea earthquake, which has triggered dangerous riptides. What was a relaxing swim becomes deadly dangerous for her.
Here’s an excerpt:
Like all the team, she was a strong swimmer and tried to power through the swells and turn back. Fighting the tide, she wasn’t making any progress. The current was sweeping her the opposite direction and toward the open water. She kicked harder as the waves surged over her head, pushing against her strokes, the salt irritating her eyes. The bigger rollers kicked her ass. They were followed by rapid, much smaller rollers. Those piddling whitecaps were kicking her ass worse. Every time she opened her mouth to take a gulp of air after the first set, the second-string whitecaps smacked her in the face, sending more seawater into her lungs than air.
She caught glimpses of the increasingly distant beach. If she screamed for help no one would hear.
With some scenes, worry and fear for our characters evolves and grows like a layer cake of tension. In Journey in Time, my time-travel romance, the hero, Alex, and heroine, Shakira, find themselves in medieval England. Shakira wakes to find the Alex has left to go hunting with the prince. In his absence, the king orders her to stay with a wool merchant for a few days. We, the reader, know outside the palace walls she is without protection. We worry for her. The king informs heroine the merchant is a favorite of the queen. More worry, if a situation arises, she must consider the queen will believe the merchant over her. The king alleges Alex knows of arrangement but the reader and Shakira know he doesn’t. The king can tell him any story he wants when Alex asks where she has gone. Our worry turns to fear for her. As merchant and Shakira ride to his home and further from the palace, she begins memorizing landmarks in case she must flee. Fear turns to tension the closer she gets to the merchant’s house. What is the king’s intention? What kind of man is the merchant? If she has to run, she has no means to defend herself, no money, and no guarantee she can gain entry back into the palace. Her tension becomes the reader’s.
Tension doesn’t always have to be big. We can connect with readers by giving our characters moments of tension that we all experience in our daily lives. For example: In your story, your protagonist absolutely must make a particular flight. But as writers, we are compelled to make things difficult. We torment him in all kinds of ways: He can’t find his car keys. The drawbridge he must cross to get to the airport is up and what seems to be the slowest boat in the world is passing through. He misses the shuttle bus at the long term parking by seconds. The TSA officer chooses the protagonist to pull out of line to perform a thorough and lengthy search of him. Haven’t we all had days like this?
In conclusion, I’d suggest look for a way to ramp up the tension in every scene, whether in a small or big way. There’s a little of us in most of our characters, even the villains. It’s only fair they share in our fears, frustrations, and worries.