7 Things ‘Sherlock’ Teaches Us About Tension in Writing

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Tension as a tool in fiction is required to pull readers into your story and keep them turning pages. Fiction that emulates real life can resonate with readers. Just like real life is full of undulating twists and turns, and life often doesn’t go to plan, your fictional stories must do the same. Tension increases both plot and character development, and if well executed, keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. If we consider Sherlock Holmes, the fictional crime-solving character, we see a single-minded character that, by his very nature, creates as many problems as he solves. Although there are many versions of Sherlock and the characterization differs somewhat depending on which version, one thing remains the same; as a character, Sherlock evokes tension and suspense.    

  1. When you add conflict into a story, you naturally build tension. The characters must respond to that situation, so through either dialogue, action or thought processes, this can increase the readers’ understanding. Do the characters interact well? Do they misunderstand each other? Are there secrets to be revealed?When we consider Sherlock, we see instantly that his blinkered approach, inner conflict, and poorly-developed social skills cause misunderstandings and exasperation from others.From a readers’ perspective, this behavior creates much interest. We like characters that are out of sync with the world and as the tension simmers away in the plot, we become hooked, keen to see what happens next.
  2. If you watch any of the Sherlock episodes, you will see that he smugly holds information back. We know that this information is important- it has to be, it’s even revealed through expression and secretive glances. Tension is rising, we can feel it. In a story, we must bring this to life through carefully worded sections. We paint with words, revealing aspects of the story or the characters using color, light, and shade.
  3. Tension should also be used to create compelling cliff-hangers at the ends of chapters. When we look at Sherlock, cliff-hangers are often used to take the viewers from one session to the next. The writers do not want to give viewers a chance to not “tune in next time”. A shock revelation, perhaps doubt about Sherlock’s abilities to solve the crime, may create suspense or anxiety in those watching. The result? Superb tension.
  4. Another Sherlock trick is to race against time in order to achieve a successful conclusion. Someone has been kidnapped and Sherlock only has a few hours to solve the crime. Will he do it? There are so many obstacles to overcome. If you can portray this in your own works of fiction, readers will hang onto every word. They want to see the outcome. They need to see that your protagonist is worried and that the underlying character traits are revealed.
  5. There must always be highs and lows in every story. You cannot sustain a fast-paced highly pressured pace consistently. There must be natural dips throughout, enabling the readers to take stock and to contemplate where the story is going.
  6. Adding comedic moments to a story that is laced with tension, serves to lighten the mood and it brings a new dimension to the characters. Much can be revealed through humor, even if the tone is sarcastic or blunt. Sherlock does this beautifully, often, not for the sake of amusement alone but, as a character extension.
  7. Use a plotline that is common and resonates with many. In a crime story, serial killers strike fear into the hearts of readers. We are aware that these crimes exist in real life, and we dread meeting those people. While Sherlock finds these types of crimes thrilling, since it teases his brain cells into working overtime, it’s a battle of wits against others.  Who will win?

TL;DR- In order to write good tension into your story, make sure that it builds over time. Let your characters shine in the face of this new adversity, while even sprinkling some comedic moments in to let your audience relax. Withhold information from your readers as your characters race against time. Never keep the tension going for a long period of time, and use a plotline that can resonate with people.

By watching how characters such as Sherlock, with the help of TV writers, thrill audiences time and time again, you can learn how to use these skills within your own fictional endeavors, ensuring your readers are hooked to the end.

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