Stories without conflict are like summers with no sunshine–boring. Tension adds conflict to your story. However, what are some tactics you might not consider when trying to write that page-turner? Below are a few thoughts to help you raise the stakes in your writing.
Throw boulders at your characters.
Say it with me, I vow to torture my darlings. There, we said it.
Now, think of Indiana Jones in any scene where you were at the edge of your seat thinking, dear lord–now what? When you write for your main character, you should be constantly thinking about ways you can make things worse–far worse. You are the special effects wizard rolling an enormous round boulder at Harrison Ford after he was nearly crushed by stones, impaled by arrows, and double-crossed.
Be Murphy’s Law, be a vengeful goddess, be deliberate in making things awful for your protagonist and by proxy you will create tension.
We don’t live in a void. Nurture background tension.
I’ve recently discovered that I admire a work of literature all the more when the author has taken the time to include something ominous in the background. Things like world events, severe weather, or another local event happening simultaneously during your storyline add other all-encompassing layers of tension and complications.
Storms inconvenience people. Bad political climates make people crazy and edgy. Gossipy tidbits of life nonsense set people off. These items, slowly woven into the thread of your story, can create a slow burn towards something bigger, something more explosive. And because these events are larger than the whole, they can affect many different characters in many different ways at many different times.
Our own lives are affected by weather, world events, local events, family/work/friend drama, so it will only add credibility to your story if you show life in all it’s many complicated facets.
Everybody loves parfaits! Create layers.
It goes without saying that you should have a central conflict. Say you’re writing a romance novel. The central conflict is generally framed around two lovers trying to find their way to one another. But, if one of the lovers has a mental illness, an addiction, or another conflict with another character, you can create more layers within the primary framework.
In Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere, two vastly different families collide in an affluent suburb. One of the mothers has four children. Her relationship with her children varies very little towards her first three. However, her discourse with her last child is intensely dismissive, uncomfortable, and cringe-worthy. This same woman, a journalist, also harbors feelings of a lost life. When she chose to work in her hometown she sacrificed pursuing a better reporting job in a bigger city.
How she relates to her youngest child does not intersect with her loss of a better career, but it does shape who she is as a person. See? Layers and layers of conflict, tension’s bff.
Opposites attract–even more tension.
Having characters with differences immediately sets the stage for clashing. When two individuals have opposing ideas or, better yet, ideals, you are constantly holding a mirror up to the other, emphasizing flaws and strengths.
In Alice Walker’s, The Color Purple, Celie and Sofia are two very different women. Celie is initially victimized, while Sofia comes out swinging. Over the course of the novel, we see Celie’s strength and courage against racial injustice result in her horrific imprisonment and subsequent submission to the very system she raged against. In the end, her own strength and fierce independence prevent her from complete independence because she refuses to back down.
In direct contrast, we see Celie, a woman who is a shadow of a person. A character who time and time again is humiliated and reduced to nothing. Eventually, she finds her own strength her path is vastly different from Sofia’s.
The two diverse characters provide yin and yang. This is especially apparent when Celie advises her stepson, Harpo to beat Sofia in order to help bring his wife into line. It doesn’t go well for Harpo, who gets his own beating from Sofia, and it doesn’t go well for Celie. When the two characters clash, Sofia forces the shy introverted Celie to verbally admit what she said to Harpo in an intense scene.
Wait, what? Provide questions that need answers.
Lastly, twists, turns, reversals, and revelations are all opportunities for you to make your readers scratch their heads. No one likes confusion, it makes us uneasy. Unanswered questions create the perfect tension for your readers. Just try not to leave your readers permanently confused. If you pose questions, and you should, make sure you eventually answer those questions.