Lorraine Mace answers readers’ queries.
Jefferson from Carlisle writes to ask how he can build tension into his novel: I’ve written a spy thriller (well I think it’s thrilling) but people who’ve read it say it doesn’t have enough tension. One of my writing friends says it needs cliff-hangers. I thought I’d done that, but maybe I haven’t done it right. Can you help?
Before we look at how to use cliff-hangers, let’s first outline what they are supposed to achieve. A cliff-hanger should leave readers in suspense, desperate to find out what happens next.
This means stopping a chapter or scene at a point where tension is high, but then switching to different scene or point of view. For example: A rapist and murderer picks his victims from joggers and follows them for a few weeks before turning up on their doorsteps, pretending to be from DHL parcel delivery. Sarah has just arrived home after her regular morning jog when the doorbell rings and the man on the doorstep claims to have a package to deliver.
At that point the chapter ends and the next one opens with a friend’s point of view, planning to meet Sarah for lunch, or move to the police point of view following up on an earlier rape/murder. The important thing is to leave the reader worrying about what has happened to Sarah.
However, cliff-hangers are not the only way to inject tension. Why not try adding in a few (or all) of the following?
Turn the tables from time to time. What about having a character who appears to be the bad guy, but is actually an undercover good guy? Or vice versa. What about having someone who appears to be a loving mother desperate to save her only child from drink and drugs, but is actually the reason the character went off the rails in the first place?
The longer you can make the reader think a character only wants the best for the protagonist, the greater the fear factor when the truth is revealed.
Put us in the villain’s head
If readers know things the protagonist doesn’t (especially if not knowing will put the protagonist in danger) it will add to the tension as we watch the hapless character walk into a trap.
Have an unstable character
If one of the characters is violent, or likely to break down without warning putting others in danger, readers will tense every time that character appears in a scene.
Hold back information
Don’t tell too much too soon. Drip feed information only as it is needed. Don’t feel you have to lay everything out so everyone can ‘get’ the story – trust your readers. Crime/thriller readers, in particular, are very good at following complex storylines with minimal information.
Phobias always add tension
Your protagonist probably has more than enough to cope with, but if readers know he or she also has a phobia that can really ramp up the tension. For example, someone adrift on a raft in tropical seas is scary enough, but add to that a pathological fear of sharks and the tension rises even before the first sight of a grey fin.
Time as an enemy
If there is all the time in the world to achieve a goal, there is little tension involved. However, if there is a time limit (four hours before a bomb explodes) the countdown adds to the fear factor. In Call it Pretending (the third D.I. Paolo Storey novel) a murder takes place every Friday and the killer leaves a note counting down the number of victims left alive. Six victims, six weeks, Paolo has limited time to solve the case and save lives.
Put your characters into a confined space from which they are unable to escape (warehouse, boat, garage, loft). Even larger areas can become confined spaces if the protagonist has no way of getting out safely. For example, a forest can be a confined space if someone is being hunted.
If you kill off one of the good guys fairly early in the book, readers will worry even more about the others.
Twist before you go
If you can keep one final (plausible) twist in reserve for the last few pages readers will be reaching for your next book as soon as they put this one down (and they’ll buy the one after that and the one after that).
Obviously you don’t need to use all of these techniques, but if you pick the ones that will work best for your story, and incorporate them, I promise your readers won’t be complaining about lack of tension.
Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and head competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a former tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer’s ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (link below). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, humour verse and novel openings.
Her debut novel for children, Vlad the Inhaler, was published in the USA on 2nd April 2014. The second in the trilogy is due out in July 2015.
Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of four crime/thriller novels featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey: Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes, Call It Pretending and Looking for a Reason by Crooked Cat Publishing.