How to use uncertainty to keep readers on the edge of their seats.
We are all familiar with being so engrossed in a story that we can’t put it down: the “I’ll just read one more page before bed time” scenario.
Tension is the critical element that keeps readers expectant regardless of the genre, place in the story, or whether a scene is action-packed or reflective. Read on to find out how to increase uncertainty and eek it out for as long as possible, to keep readers on the edge of their seats in your stories.
What is tension?
Tension is the emotional anxiety we feel in the face of uncertainty.” Sandy Vaile
Sure, readers might anticipate good and bad events in a story, but it’s the emotional stress of waiting for a negative outcome that is the focus of story tension, because that is what makes hearts beat faster and stomachs somersault.
Tension = Emotional investment + Stakes + Uncertainty
How to create tension
In order to create tension you need to:
Uncertainty is where the opportunity to really pump up the tension resides and there are a variety of techniques to enable it, like:
Readers love that anxious churning in the pit of their stomachs when they’re unsure how a situation is going to turn out, so it’s the author’s job to make them anticipate the worst and keep them desperate to know the outcome for as long as possible. Let’s explore some techniques you can use.
Humans are innately curious, so play on this by raising questions about characters or situations. Hint at a painful past experience or a secret they are desperate to keep hidden. (These hooks reel readers in and keep them wanting more.) Perfect characters are boring, so be clear about their flaws, e.g. a struggle with a moral decision, hiding information from loved ones or acting outside the law.
When faced with unpleasant change, characters often react fiercely because they are desperate to avoid it, which is an excellent way to force them out of their comfort zone. Give them no option other than to face their worst fears, in order to lead them to personal growth.
Instead of giving information away early on, gradually add it piece by piece, like a puzzle for the reader to solve.
Another technique is to provide the reader with more information than the protagonist has. For example, the reader might learn about another character’s motives or secret when the protagonist hasn’t yet or they might know that a villain is waiting just around the corner. This leads them to dread a particular outcome that they believe they can see coming as the protagonist ploughs blindly forwards.
Of course, just when all is about to be lost, is the perfect time for you to surprise them with a revelation.
Unexpected changes in the story help prolong tension. After leading the reader along a particular path of expectation, you might throw in a twist (surprise direction of the plot) or reveal startling information (a revelation) or even different take the reader in a suddenly new direction.
Unexpected events unsettle readers and provide a peak of tension in the story. Readers wonder about the ramifications of these surprising events.
Conflict is at the core of a purposeful story with plenty of tension. You need to know what your characters desire and how far they will go to achieve it, then make sure you push them to their limits. Conflict leads to tension when there’s an emotional connection with the character. The audience needs to care about, or at least be interested in, what happens to them.
Conflict can be internal, like a moral dilemma, or external, like a relationship breakdown. You can pit one character against another or a character against an idea/event/themself. Preferably characters will have both internal and external conflicts to deal with and the obstacles they face will continually increase in difficulty.
It isn’t necessarily how big the conflict is that creates the tension, but how much the character wants it. Throw every obstacle and complication you can think of at them, so they have to prove how much they want that goal.
And if their lives were difficult enough, why not add a sense of urgency?
Urgency can be created by a literal ticking clock, e.g. you have until noon to come up with the money, or a subtler deadline, e.g. if the love interest hasn’t made a move by the time the company sells, she’ll leave town.
A finite amount of time puts characters under pressure to solve any problems that come their way or something terrible will happen. This goes hand-in-hand with making sure the stakes are high enough. If readers understand what a character has to lose, and it is dire (to the character at least), they will follow them through thick and thin.
Stories that are layered with tension provide readers with the perfect arena to enjoy risk-taking and angst in a safe environment, as well as contentment when they finally reach the satisfying outcome. Keeping readers engaged doesn’t have to mean constant action or mortal danger, you just have to make them care about the characters, give them something to lose and then create uncertainty about the outcome and delay the resolution for the entire story.
This article was first published in "Hearts Talk Magazine" 2020 and republished in the Romance Writers of Australia "30th Anniversary Edition" 2021.
If you’d like to delve further into how to develop and sustain tension in your stories, join the discussion in The Fearless Novelist Facebook group; a place where kindred spirits come to share industry and craft information, and inspire one another to write share-worthy novels.
Providing readers with truly memorable stories requires complex and authentic characters, but to provide the kind of meaningful character traits and motivations that keep readers intent throughout a story and pondering its characters long after they close a book, you need to go much deeper than the standard Character Profile checklist.
The trouble is, deficient characters lead to weak stories. So, it's not enough to figure out where they came from, you need to make their thoughts and actions relevant to the plot.
Too often, when working with authors, I find missed opportunities in this area, which leaves readers not quite satisfied. The consequences of not delving deeply enough into a characters psyche are:
The key to bringing out the best and worst in our characters, is to make their thoughts and actions relevant to the plot.
Whether you start with plot or character, to create a dynamic story, you need to tie the two together and this means knowing which parts of their personality and backstory you can use against them, and which abilities you can harness to give them a fighting chance.
It’s not enough to fling mud at the wall and see what sticks, you have to know which parts to use and how to leverage them for the benefit of the story.
What makes characters authentic?
There are countless Character Profiles out there to help you list physical traits, mannerisms, demographics, lifestyle and personal preferences. What I’m talking about here are the things that make characters unique, like their:
I always think I know my characters when I start a new story, but by the time I get to the end of the first draft, I've had to make innumerable decisions, which add complexity to them.
For this reason, I recommend using a Character Profile template that goes the extra mile and updating it as you write. Dig deep into your character’s driving forces to unearth what’s special about them and will evoke readers’ sympathies. (Below is a link to a ready-made template that’s loaded with prompts to draw out those complexities.)
What makes characters relevant to the plot?
There is an inextricable link between what needs to happen throughout a story’s plot for the characters to get from the starting point to their destination, and why each character is driven to take specific actions. Characters who act with purpose, i.e. they have solid reasons for their actions, have the power to engage readers in their conflicts, which in turn creates tension and draws them all the way through the book.
In order for characters to behave believably, you need to be able to communicate why they think a certain way or take a particular action. You can’t communicate it if you don’t know it. So, my favourite question to ask every time a character has a thought or takes an action is “Why?”.
This desire will invariably come from their past, even when they are reacting to situations in the present. For example, if five different people were faced with the same situation, they would each handle it in their own way, based on what they believe and want.
For each plot point, it must be clear how the character got there. Not how the author physically put them in that situation, but what life choices they made, what they did and with whom, to plausibly bring them to this moment in time.
Readers connect with characters when they can sympathise with what they’re going through. They may have been through a similar situation or understand the strong emotions linked to it, be cringing at a failure or rooting for a win.
This peek inside their humanity comes from what shaped them as a person, i.e. everything that happened to them before the story started. Just like real people, story characters need to appear to have lived, loved and lost. It’s these backstory events, world views and personal beliefs that add depth to them.
Only share the character traits and backstory events that are relevant to what’s happening in the story at that time, to enable readers to understand what’s going on and feel the emotional turmoil alongside the character.
Instead of forcing characters to perform like circus animals, deep character development provides solid reasons why they are on this journey and will stick with it even when the going gets tough.
When plot requires the character to behave a certain way, there must be a plausible desire within them, based on who they are and what they believe. On the flip side, if a character wants to do something, you must be able to provide sound reasoning for their decision and motivation for them to act.
Taking the time to develop complex characters who are driven by their beliefs, will make for an emotive experience readers can buy into and remember fondly for years to come. But remember, just because you’ve thought about every possible situation, doesn’t mean it’s all relevant to the story. Only use what is needed to support the events happening in the story at that time.
If you’ve been accused of having cardboard cutout characters or unbelievable scenarios, it’s likely you need to explore the inner workings of your character’s mind and make sure their thoughts and actions are relevant to what’s going on in the plot.
Grab a copy of Sandy’s free Character Profile template (it’s so much more!).
About Sandy Vaile
Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. She writes romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US and coaches fiction authors to write novels they are proud to share (and which get noticed by agents and publishers).
Sandy is an experienced course presenter who provides a nurturing workshop environment where participants can truly absorb the material and apply it to their own work. In her spare time, she composes procedures for high-risk industrial processes, judges writing competitions, runs The Fearless Novelist Facebook group, and offers critiquing services.
Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.
Empowering modern fiction authors to confidently write novels worthy of publication