In part 1 of this post, I gave you a couple of ideas of how to build tension in your story. Here are a few more ideas.
Intentionally avoid the expected (the “elephant in the room”).
You know what that’s like. Something huge has happened, but everyone wants to avoid talking about it. If your characters do the same thing, your readers will feel the tension build like crazy—just like it does in real life while you wait nervously, knowing someone is going to say something that everyone else wants to sweep under the carpet.
For example, in my current work in progress, a forbidden romance is brewing (forbidden because of a huge age difference). Unable to contain their attraction any longer, they give in to their darkest desires and make love in an inappropriate place, finding themselves interrupted, rushing to get dressed before they’re discovered. That’s tense enough, right? But add in the fact that for agonizing hours which turn into overnight, they aren’t able to debrief. Now, as a reader, you know they have to talk about it, but after going all night long, then the characters are avoiding talking about it—which makes things tense. OMG! How long can this go on? Ah, sweet tension—and when you do finally let them talk, what a reward you will be giving to your readers.
Make your beloved main character’s life hell!
Heap on the troubles. Just when it seems like things can’t get worse, make them worse. Yes, you need to have “downtimes” as well, but if you keep applying the pressure, your readers will be tearing through pages with bated breath, needing to know if your main character is going to break.
In Laid Bare, my main character Randi started with a basket full of troubles—a rocky love life, a troubled child, a too-busy schedule (work and school). She’s also dealing with two exes and is trying to find out the source of her child’s obvious mental anguish. But then it’s time to really pile it on. Her job is now in jeopardy. So are her grades. And the guy she won’t admit she loves starts dating someone else. All that hanging in the balance and it’s time for her to find out the horror of what her poor child has been dealing with. By that point, readers will want to know if the character is going to break or be strong enough to make it through the fire.
Keep some secrets…but let us know they’re there.
A secret isn’t a big deal if you don’t know someone’s keeping it—but when you know someone’s staying mum about something he doesn’t want you to know, all of a sudden, you’re dying. You will die if you don’t find out what’s being kept from you. Now imagine you’re a reader, privy to all sorts of secrets in the book…except one. Holding on to that secret as a writer until the exact right time is a great tension builder.
In my book Tangled Web, I let readers know first that something’s changed with one character’s mood before letting them know what:
She’d been hoping Johnny had gone back to sleep so she could just slip out to work and leave a note that she wanted to chat later. But no such luck. He was up, sitting on the side of the bed, fully dressed. His arms were crossed in front of his chest.
“Hey,” she said, almost whispering. He was not his happy-go-lucky self—she could sense that within seconds. Hell, he wasn’t even the pleasant recently sexed guy she’d left half an hour or so ago. She paused just inside the doorway, the atmosphere palpable, thick. Hesitant, she walked into the room. “What’s up?”
His eyes were focused on his knees, and he didn’t look up to make contact with Katie’s. He looked like he might have been scowling, but in the semi-darkness of her curtained room, she couldn’t tell. He nodded toward the mirror attached to her dresser. “You wanna tell me who that is?”
Her eyes followed his path to the dresser. Sh*t. There was a strip of four black and white pictures of her and Grant posing in a photo booth from earlier that summer when the two of them had gone to the State Fair. They’d stepped into the booth on a lark, and three of the photos were silly pictures—one where her tongue was sticking out; another where she was cross-eyed; and another where she’d tilted her head to one side, her eyes looking up, one finger under her chin. Grant had been laughing in each shot, even though he’d tried but failed to be silly like she was. The last shot, though, she’d been serious, and the photo caught them in mid-kiss. When they’d arrived at her house the next day, Grant had told her to keep the pictures and had tucked them in the upper left corner of the dresser mirror. And like everything in her house, it became invisible once she’d grown used to it.
But of course it would be as clear as a window to Johnny.
Obviously, there are lots of other techniques you can use to build tension in your story. Play around to discover what works for you and take note of what other authors do to make you flip those pages like a maniac, dying to discover what’s going to happen next. Whatever the case, though, realize that, without tension, your book is a wet noodle—and we all know how much we hate wet, soggy noodles! The best pasta still has some bite to it, and so should your story. Add the tension. Your readers will love you for it, even while they’re white-knuckling their reading devices so hard their fingers are cramping.