Author Dominic Nolan lays out how to ratchet up the tension to keep readers glued to your story
Creating tension throughout your book is a holistic process working on different layers to build up the reader’s anticipation (or anxiety) for key scenes and revelations. Think of a zoom lens, bringing tension into focus at different distances, from large scale wide shots (your character’s motivations, or external conflicts that are the engine of your plot) to small scale close-ups (subplots, and right on down to individual scenes and paragraphs.)
Micro vs macro
The micro level is how tension operates in individual scenes; a child creeping through a dark house at night, unsure if they’re alone; soldiers being ambushed out of the blue by unseen enemies; a fawn being hunted through wild woods by a lynx. How you write such passages depends entirely on your own voice and style.
You might change the cadence of your language so the passages stand out. This could involve using shorter sentences with more active verbs, or utilising your white space differently by introducing more line breaks to highlight certain details and lead the reader’s eye across the page quicker.
Conversely, stringing together longer sentences, either by using commas and punctuation to connect clauses (asyndeton) or using a repeated conjunction such as and or or (polysyndeton), can create runaway momentum in your language.
For this kind of sentence-by-sentence work, you’ll know what techniques better makes your prose sing. The real heavy lifting in ramping up tension comes at the macro level, which is a more structural process of laying detail upon detail over hundreds of pages, or what Ross Macdonald called the 'wild masonry' of writing.
Character motivation vs reader motivation
Ross Macdonald's private detective Lew Archer is paid to find a missing oil tycoon. In Ted Lewis's Jack's Return Home (and the cult film Get Carter), Jack Carter returns home to find his brother’s killer. In Caroline Kepnes' You, Joe Goldberg is obsessed with Guinevere Beck.
Simple, right? The easiest people to manipulate are your characters. You created them and you’re writing them, so they’ll always do whatever you want. Readers, however, can be a trickier proposition. You want them to turn the page and keep on turning the pages, but for that to happen it isn’t enough that your characters have compelling reasons to go through whatever hell you have planned for them; you need the reader to be similarly invested.
Tension is only effective if the reader cares about what happens to your characters. I’ve always found 'likeable' to be a dirty word. When people complain that they don’t find a character likeable, what they often mean is they don’t find them compelling. You don’t need to want to invite a character round for dinner. After all, who in their right mind would want to introduce Joe Goldberg to their parents? So think about how Caroline Kepnes makes you root for Joe in You, despite how dangerous he is. Despite the twisted and messed up things he does.
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The first step can be getting the reader to see things from your character’s perspective. Make them feel the worries and anxieties gnawing away inside your character’s head, the weaknesses or misgivings that tilt their decision-making. This is internal conflict; the mental and emotional struggles affecting them no matter what external obstacles they might face.
In my debut, Past Life, Boone has lost her memory, lost everything that made her who she was. But rather than striving to recover her memories, she fears their return; she is terrified that if she remembers the past, the person she is in the present will be erased and recorded over by the person she used to be.
Before she ever tries to solve a mystery or confront an enemy, she has an internal battle to fight; the old detective Abigail Boone versus the new outlaw Abigail Boone.
Thrillers are fuelled by characters facing obstacles; disruptions and twists that throw your character off balance. These outside agencies can take the form of an antagonist/villain, or social oppression, or natural phenomenon: Ian Rankin's John Rebus searches for the murderer of young girls; Delia Owens' Kya Clark battles the prejudices of small town folk who think of her as a backwards marsh girl; Brody, Hooper and Quint hunt a killer great white shark in Jaws.
By bringing external and internal conflicts to bear upon each other you can raise the stakes. Pull the rug out from beneath your character’s feet, have them fail in the face of some obstacle. How do they react to that failure? Will it amplify their weaknesses, or will they find the resolve to overcome? The more urgent the stakes, the more crucial your character’s decisions and actions become; this is how external and internal conflicts feed each other.
Weaving the narrative
Aside from building scenes one on top of another, the cumulative process of tension is about pacing; slowing things down as well as quickening them up. Your story has ebb and flow, allowing you to reveal details that deepen the readers’ connections with your characters. Those quiet moments before the storm aren’t any less interesting; you’re focusing your narrative momentum in different ways.
Subplots are a great way of feeding additional tension into the narrative. What does you character’s marriage look like? If there are problems there, they can feed into their existing emotional conflict. Characters can even come into conflict with each other when they have the same goal. In Jaws, Hooper has an affair with Brody’s wife, and the two come to blows over it in the midst of their shark hunt. In my new book After Dark, Barb secures Boone’s release from prison to help her find a child killer. Although they both want to find the same person, Barb is looking to bring them to trial but Boone wants revenge, and their differing methods see them clash.
Consequences – play for keeps
Suspense is the art of using and subverting what a reader expects to happen to generate tension. Surprise is delivering what the reader doesn’t expect. If your character walks through fire and emerges unscathed time and time again, then what else will the reader expect to happen? Don’t be afraid to take things away from your character, and I don’t just mean their illusions. A finger, maybe. Or a friend.
If you’ve convinced your reader to be fully invested in your characters, then they will feel the losses every bit as much as your characters do. And next time you put a character in harm’s way, they’ll know exactly what is on the line – everything.
Ted Lewis, the author of Jack's Return Home, which Dominic mentions in this article, is being rediscovered by a new generation of crime fans. Crime writer Nick Triplow, author of the acclaimed Ted Lewis biography Getting Carter, shines a light on his process here.