As writers, one of the best compliments we can get from our readers is that our book was so gripping that they couldn’t put it down. But how do we accomplish this? How can we get readers hooked on our stories so much that they need to know what comes next? As it so happens, there is a key ingredient to making your book compelling: tension.
Most books have the same general plot of a character needing or desiring something and a series of escalating obstacles preventing them from getting that desire. But truly successful books hone in on that key word—escalating obstacles. In other words, what the character must overcome becomes more and more difficult. That, in turn, increases tension. Here are some ways to accomplish it:
What’s the Worst that Could Happen?
Remember the movie trailer for Jaws? A carefree woman, kicking around in the water. And yet…we watch it and feel tense. We don’t even have to see the shark coming for her and we get nervous. Why?
Because we can imagine the worst thing that can happen in that moment.
That’s the power of tension. In this case, we can’t tear our eyes from the screen, because we’re already visualizing the worst. But the brilliant movie creators didn’t just let us imagine the worst—they made it happen. And we remain riveted as a result. If they just showed the woman splashing but there was no payoff, people wouldn’t care. They care because the worst happens and they want to know what happens next.
So when you’re writing, take moments to stop and ask yourself: what’s the worst that could happen to my character here? And then make it happen.
Give ‘Em Hell
You created these characters. In many cases, you probably like them. But this shouldn’t stop you from putting your characters through hell and back. Putting your characters in tough situations gives you the opportunity to elicit powerful emotional responses from your readers. It also gives you a chance to show your readers what stuff your characters are made of.
This doesn’t mean every story has to be sad and miserable. But even in light-hearted or romantic stories, you can put your characters through tough situations. This can even be done comedically. Think about the famous movie, “Tommy Boy.” This comedy follows a character who is desperately trying to prove himself and failing all the while. But as he goes along, his luck just gets worse and worse, including the car he’s in getting progressively destroyed. But the more the car gets destroyed, the funnier the movie gets. Bad for him is pretty entertaining for us.
Raise Those Stakes!
Remember, it’s not enough to simply add tension—things have to be getting worse for the character. By the time we’re inching on the climax, life might seem a bit bleak to them. They may even doubt their own abilities to get through. Hope may be lost.
This is done by continually raising the stakes. This is the moment where the villain who is threatening to blow up the building reveals to our protagonist that he’s not just going to blow up the building—he’s got the protagonist’s family inside, too. With things that much worse, the protagonist has no choice but to risk everything. And we, as readers, have no choice but to find out what happens.
Tension will help keep those pages turning. And the best part about it? It makes the pay-off of the ending that much better.