Monday, October 12, 2015

Creating Tension - Crash Course

Recently I travelled to attend another interesting writing workshop, taught by Brian Henry of the Quick Brown Fox blog. This one was on creating tension and suspense.

Tension and suspense keep the reader interested. They want to know what will happen next...if writers do their job exceptionally well, the reader NEEDS to know.

So how do we create that sort of interest?

It's not always easy. As writers, we lead the reader along, making them see what we want while not losing them through confusion or disinterest because we aren't revealing enough. It can be a fine balance at times. Without enough tension or conflict the novel is dull. On the other hand, too much can overwhelm the reader.

First you need a character your reader cares about. If you don't care about the character you won't worry how this person will make it through the conflict. The character doesn't always have to be likable, but the reader needs to relate and feel empathy towards him/her.

Once you have your character, you need to keep your story focused. If you make your plot and subplots too complicated, you will lose the reader. It doesn't mean you can't have an intricate plot, just make sure your reader can follow it.

People read to experience something new, to feel something, to be plunged into a different world. Give them that. Layer your characters with emotions and sensations. Give them strong emotions with some conflict. We don't always feel one way or another about things, sometimes circumstances dictate how we feel or react to situations. If you're writing fantasy or sci-fi, make your world interesting. Have your characters interact with it so the reader can experience the world too.

Then it's time to throw your character to the wolves. Make his/her life miserable. Characters needs to experience crises to challenge themselves and come out of the whole situation changed (for better or worse). Building to these turning points in your story builds tension and suspense for the reader. So draw it out, but keep it interesting.

As I mentioned earlier, writers lead the reader along. It's a good idea to give them a plausible outcome, then turn the tables and surprise the reader with a different outcome. This can be tricky because you don't want to cheat the reader. Like having the main character captured only to have help arrive shortly after as part of his/her plan. Or providing a different outcome that was way out of left field.

You can also provide a few ways the problem can be solved so the reader is unsure which the character will choose. You should drop some hints as to what is really going to happen, they don't have to be obvious, but make it believable. In my research for writing a mystery novel, I saw the tip to add these sort of little details/clues about the real solution during an action scene when the reader is focused on something else. Then at the end the reader won't feel cheated because you hinted at the real solution, just not outright. Sometimes it helps to make a list of all the ways the character could solve the problem or get out of trouble. Write down anything and everything. Usually the first ones we come up with are standard tropes so we need to flush all the ideas out to dig and find the really creative solutions for our character.

Delaying the action is another tension builder. Slow the scene down. Like in horror movies when the character hears a noise and is slowly walking towards the door at the end of the hall. That walk is drawn out to build out suspense. In writing, slow the action down. Take time to describe the character's heart pounding, the eerie light coming from underneath the door, the creak of the floor. This can be tricky because you don't want to bore your reader either. As a reader, sometimes I want to know the outcome so badly that I start skipping sentences to get to the action.

Those are some of the things we discussed during the workshop. Are there any other tips you have for bringing tension and suspense to your writing?

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