Page turners are the best kind of writing. When your readers want more the entire time they are reading your work, they also want more when they’re done. Engaging writing builds a loyal readership. They will want to read everything you wrote before and look forward to your new work. How do you create writing that can’t be put down?
You create tension by giving your readers something to look forward to. They want questions answered or need to see how a plan will play out. Any way you can create hostility, suspense or anxiety in your writing will contribute to the tension.
Don’t try too hard to answer questions for your readers. If anything, create more questions. The major plot of a story should not be resolved until the final chapter.
Building Tension in Fiction
Story tension is created when one action leads to another. The story should appear to have been written as reactions to the actions that started everything off. For example, a cab driver finds a notebook in the backseat at the end of her shift. Searching for the owner gets some shady characters interested in her. A friend staying at her apartment is killed. She’s sure they meant to kill her. She needs to hide out but needs to work. This conflict creates tension. She gets a bookkeeping job to get out of the public eye. She soon realizes the company she’s working for is a front for organized crime and more shady characters are introduced. There’s a conflict between the two criminal groups and your protagonist is right in the middle. And now the police are investigating her connections to organized crime.
All of the characters should want something, even the minor players. The desires of a main character may get greater emphasis but they are frustrated because they are in opposition to the desires of a minor character.
The strongest tension comes from situations that have no obvious outcome or are certain to lead to a bad outcome.
Slowing down the action will also build tension provided you’ve already established a tense situation.
Ways to Introduce Tension in Fiction
Conflict within a character’s personality. Moral and ethical dilemmas.
Characters who are natural opposites. Liberal and conservative. Slob and neat-nick. Extrovert and introvert.
Conflict in the Environment
Something is out of place in the environment. Natural disasters. New neighbors who don’t fit in.
Important decisions and changes. Divorce. Unemployment. Serious problems for or with close relatives or friends.
There are strong and weak schemes for achieving a goal. Analyze the possibilities for the situation. Try to find something risky but possible. How intelligent are the characters involved? If all of the protagonist’s schemes succeed, that can be tension reducing. You can make your stories more interesting by having most schemes fail.
Concurrent situations that evoke opposite emotions.
Important events interrupted by trivial events.
Secrets that may be revealed. Unreliable confidants or blackmailers.
Tension in Nonfiction
It can be tougher to create tension in nonfiction. The reader is likely to be familiar with your subject matter already. No matter what the knowledge level of your readers, your early chapters should present the simplest concepts. Later chapters use those first concepts to present more complex ideas. Your goal is a gradual learning curve. Wait until the final chapter to bring all the elements of your subject together into the big picture and it will be viewed as a great book.
To keep readers moving on to the next chapter, raise questions at the end of each. You don’t need actual questions. When you tell them what the next chapter is about and how it relates to what they just read, they will form their own questions.
Tension is also increased by bringing in an unknown. Use related material from a different subject area. If you’re writing about auto mechanics, a chapter on logical analysis as applied to diagnosing car problems may be something your readers will see for the first time.
Nonfiction can also introduce conflicting ideas. Conflict is tension. Be clear on whether a final verdict has come through or the debate rages on.
Anecdotes are a great way to break up pages full of information and instruction. Just be sure the stories relate well to the material.
You may be tempted now to create tension in everything you write. For fiction, that’s a great plan. For nonfiction, you don’t really need to worry about it until the final draft. Nonfiction is about knowledge and instruction. You can always rearrange the chapters and add teaser paragraphs to the end of them in the final draft.
Article by Ivan Izo.