My guest today is mystery author Denise Hartman, who helps us raise the tension -- useful in many types of writing, not just mysteries and thrillers. Welcome, Denise. ~Sheila
Need to up the ante on the tension?
Denise M. Hartman
This time of year we like to think of spooky stories and things that go bump in the night. How do we as writers add tension to our stories be they spooky or poignant? We can take some clues from the movies.
The big screen often uses a literal time bomb, numbers counting down to the ultimate boom clock. In writing, we can add this element minus the actual bomb by putting deadlines to story elements and by having our protagonist chasing and lagging behind those deadlines and striving to beat the clock.
Another tension boost is threat, especially if the audience knows about the looming threat, and the main character does not. A la Titanic. This can also be done with a betrayer that is lurking in the story – the sense of impending doom is there if we know there’s a Judas in the house. The writer can also do this simply by giving the reader more information than the protagonist. Increasing knowledge or a looming disaster can jangle the nerves and keep the reader turning pages deep into the night.
When characters are compressed in actual space, our heart rates go up with theirs. Is your character trapped in a trunk as mine is in my work in progress (Nosy Neighbors)? Or in a tiny house with a zombie hoard outside? Panting to get away in a Panic Room a la Jody Foster? Clamp down on the space and ratchet up the tension.
My character Blanche is trapped in a trunk of a car (without a safety open latch) but in addition to that she lacks tools to help herself. She lacks fresh air, and she lacks water. This deprivation of various things, space, tools, things needed to succeed adds tension to the question will she escape? Deprive your characters of some needed tools and watch them squirm as they try to meet their goal.
A favorite film of mine adds tension to a scene by contrasting two things. Rear Window has the protagonist – isolated in a wheelchair watching via binoculars out the window as his beloved goes to investigate a suspicious apartment without giving too much away. In the meantime, the antagonist shows up and our friend in the window can see these two things going on. The tension skyrockets. Compare and contrast is a good tool for your writing. Suspense books do this often with the chapters contrasting what the good guys and bad guys are doing.
On a more subtle note, if your protagonist is a mom and a lawyer, you could have these two parts of her personality be at odds with one another or with the wants and desires of the other part of character. A lawyer who wants to win at all costs, who is a mom who wants to put her family first can’t always have it both ways. Even if this is not the main conflict of the story the tension of the thing builds from these conflicting pieces of her personality.
This same tension can be had by conflicting goals. Perhaps the protagonist wants to have fun, but internally wants to be a fulfilled whole person. The party boy frat house prankster on the outside might be crying out for unconditional love on the inside. Whatever the plot line, you can build in these conflicting desires and increase the tension with contrasts.
The movies are great at showing us crazy car chases and at some point the proverbial baby carriage or pedestrian in the intersection that makes us all cringe. In print, we gasp and read on when an innocent is in danger, a child, or a weak character begs our protection. If you pick on the innocent using them as a target, you can add a new level of tension to your story.
I’ve read several stories lately that were crafted in such a way that you did not see the name or identity of the bad guy even as we rolled into the reveal. A slow reveal adds tension – the opposite of too much information – slowly adding more information to the readers knowledge will have them hungry to read more to get to that final satisfying tidbit of the reveal.
Denise's background in journalism and television production has influenced her writing style and habits, while living overseas for several years, currently in Madrid, Spain, gives Denise's imagination new sites and sounds for her mysteries on a day in and out basis. She is a member of Sisters In Crime, including having been the president of her hometown Kansas City Partners in Crime chapter. Denise has a passion for reading, books, travel, dogs, tea, and teapots not necessarily in that order. You can find her all over her place!