01 02 03 Amorina Rose Writes: Sources of Tension in Novels 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Sources of Tension in Novels

I’ve started back into writing one of my novels which has been on hold for a while. It had issues. No, it had one BIG issue: I did not care enough about what was happening. It lacked tension.

Uh-oh. These are my characters I’m talking about, this is my carefully constructed plot. If I don’t care, it’s a dead certainty no-one else will.

I’m starting to get my head around it now and realise I’d made a very simple mistake. My characters are on a mission and there are bad guys placing various challenges and obstacles in their way - it’s intended to be a kind of thriller. What I hadn’t realised was that a reader is not going to care much about completion of the mission as such. It is not enough to present a puzzle as though the reader will automatically care about its solution. Readers, I believe, want to care about the characters.

When I thought about it, in successful thrillers it is rarely the plot I remember, it’s the people: James Bond springs to mind, or Jason Bourne. Quiller, Smiley, and the wonderful Sherlock Holmes. Okay, that’s enough, I’m showing my age.

So first I have to connect my reader to the characters. Then I have to show how much the mission means to them. If completion of the mission is bound up with some personal desire of the characters, so much the better.

Another error was to think that tension is bound up with action. I recently had the opportunity to read one of Barb’s novels – a romance so totally outside my genre - which opened my eyes to another way of maintaining tension. From the start of the novel, she places her characters into a scene of intense emotional conflict. There are clues as to the reason for the conflict but the exact details are held back from the reader, to be gradually revealed through backstory. This creates tension in the reader as they wonder the reasons behind the characters’ behaviour and satisfaction when the backstory is finally revealed.

Here's an inspiring piece (sorry I can't get this to come up as a link), which suggests four ways to maintain tension: change, twists, dialogue and revelations:


And this one, which suggests making things difficult for your characters:


I would also suggest another source of tension: frustration. This can work in any genre – let the reader understand what it is the character most needs or desires (be it completion of her mission or winning the heart of that special man) and then frustrate her every attempt to get it.

Approaching the novel with these ideas in mind, I can see how my two protagonists might play off each other to gradually reveal their strengths, insecurities and emotional baggage. With a bit of thought, I might be able to connect that into the plot. Suddenly I’m starting to get excited and feel that maybe I can produce a decent novel from this story after all (crossed fingers).

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