Bring on the Nail Biting: Tips to Build Tension in Your Story

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Last week I talked about how sometimes simple-sounding feedback from beta readers or editors may indicate a bigger issue with your manuscript, and I shared my own experience with my latest novel draft. You can read that here: The Last Round – Fine Tuning Your Manuscript.

Much of the feedback I received focused around building tension in my scenes. For an action-filled space-opera full of battles, intrigue, and adventure, tension should leap off the page. But in some places, it didn’t. Today I want to focus on a few techniques that can help build tension in your scenes.

First, consider that working on this aspect of your manuscript is not a first-draft activity. Get the bones of the story written. Work out the major plot-lines and character arcs. Then come back and focus on the next layer, which may include adding more tension to scenes that need it

Raise the stakes.

The reader has to believe that the danger is real, that their favorite character is in jeopardy, that the worst thing that can possibly happen may actually happen. The stakes have to be high, they have to be meaningful, and generally they have to be personal. Your job is to make readers care about your characters and become fully invested in their journey. When something threatens them, the reader should feel the stress of it, and the outcome should matter to them.

If Luke’s shot misses, the Death Star will destroy the last of the Rebel Alliance. If Harry Potter doesn’t find the last Horcrux, Voldemort will regain his power. Or, let’s go for a different kind of tension. In Me Before You, if Louisa Clark doesn’t get to Will Traynor in time, she won’t be able to be by his side when he passes.

Get us into the character’s headspace.

Tension doesn’t have to come from the outer world and plot alone. We can use the inner-thinking of our characters, and their responses to danger, loss, and high stress to help ramp up the tension. Allow readers to feel that character’s mental or physical stress. Are they near exhaustion? Are they afraid or angry? Use quick, potent language can to describe those feelings. Under stress, a character’s decision making will also be impacted. It will be from the gut, not careful or measured. Make the reader feel what the character feels, and make them care what happens next.

Add the ticking clock.

If our hero can’t disarm the bomb in the next five minutes, both he and the hostages in the building will be blown to bits. If our favorite detective doesn’t make it to the ER in time, he’ll bleed out from his gunshot wound. If our scientist can’t create an antidote in time, millions will die. The element of limited time adds tension.

The ticking clock doesn’t only work for action sequences. It works for emotionally charged scenes as well. Using Me Before You again, there is a ticking clock for Louisa and Will. Will is going to die. The final moments the two of them spend together make for some really intense reading. I cried ugly tears. Tension comes in different flavors.

So, ramp up your readers’ adrenaline by raising the stakes, putting them into the character’s headspace, and starting a countdown.Your novel will be more intense as a result, and your readers will come back for more.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Tabitha Lord is the award-winning author of the HORIZON series. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, four kids, two spoiled cats, and lovable black lab.

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