[Originally published on the Romance Writers of Australia blog 08/06/20.]
By Sandy Vaile
The importance of matching suspense to the fluctuations of plot
Tension is a critical element of all stories and needs to be maintained in order to keep readers turning the pages, but how does this correspond to the fluctuations of plot? There can’t be life-threatening situations in every chapter, nor are all stories about mortal danger. So, let’s explore how you can match the fluctuations in a story’s plot to the level of tension.
First we need to be on the same page in understanding what tension and plot fluctuations are, and then we’ll explore how to synchronise the two for jaw-clenching read.
What is tension?
“Tension is the emotional strain we feel in the face of uncertainty.” Sandy Vaile
In fiction we focus on the emotional strain caused by unpleasant things that might happen to characters, especially to the protagonist (hero/heroine). To create tension we develop characters our readers care about (or are at least interested in), give them something important to lose and then put all sorts of obstacles in their way to make the outcome of their journey uncertain.
All of this makes the reader worry.
What are plot fluctuations?
The events that comprise the plot of a story DO NOT happen along a straight line. Over a whole story there is a pattern of rising tension that culminates in a crisis, and then falling tension as the characters consider their next move and gather resources. This pattern is repeated over and over again.
You may have heard these fluctuations called many things, like scene and sequel, action and reaction, or conflict and reflection. Even within chapters there may be places where tension is high or low, but it will still be there.
If there is no tension at all, the story has either concluded or the reader has dozed off.”
Think of tension as the thread that connects all of your plot parts together. It is stiched through the internal and external conflicts, key plot points, character transformation, uncertainty of each situation and the unresolved questions you’ve raised, holding everything together and coaxing the reader along for the ride.
So, how can you recognise and then treat the different degrees of tension?
Degrees of tension
Tension can be intensified and relaxed but never totally released.
We want readers to keep turning pages, not be totally out of breath as though they’ve run a marathon, and the way to do that is by increasing and decreasing tension levels. Just as the action and conflict in a story plot rises and falls, so too are their corresponding rises and falls in tension. It gradually builds as the story reaches a climactic moment, i.e. where major revelations/battles/events occur, and then relaxes during moments of reflection or preparation for the next situation.
Increase tension during times of turmoil, like mortal danger, a life upheaval or imminent threat to something the character cares about. When you reach key moments (plot points) in your story, tension should be high, with the reader desperate to know what happens next and truly worried for the stability/happiness/safety of the protagonist.
In order to do this, we can use techniques like dropping shocking revelations, increasing what’s at stake for the characters, creating a sense of urgency for an outcome like giving them a deadline or forcing the protagonist to face something she dreads.
Examples of blatant tension:
Decrease tension when your characters need time to reflect on what just happened, solve a conundrum or gather themselves for the next onslaught. These moments allow the reader to breathe a little and fall in love with your characters. They happen in between crises and are particularly important in romance stories because readers expect to spend time exploring the character’s emotions and inner turmoil. Even in thriller stories there will be times when characters need to gather intel, collect resources or move to a different location.
But even when you decrease the level of tension, the uncertainty about the outcome of the whole situation doesn’t completely ease. To achieve subtle tension we use techniques like raising questions, planting hooks, changing expectations, hint at a character’s fears or secrets and foreshadowing the turmoil to come. Subtext is an excellent way to cast uncertainty on what a character is actually saying or doing.
Examples of subtle tension:
Think of the pace of tension like the surge and retreat of waves at the beach.
It builds to a crest, crashes dramatically and then quietly fades back to the ocean, over and over again. Match each wave with key moments in your story plot so you can control the increase and decrease of anxiety your reader experiences, but never let it completely disappear.
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By Sandy Vaile
I may write romantic-suspense, but firmly believe that suspense is for every story, no matter the genre. It’s the ideal tool to compel readers to keep turning pages all the way to the end, by creating real emotional tension.
What is suspense?
Remember back to a book you just couldn’t put down. More than likely, the author made you worry about the character, and be apprehensive about the outcome of conflicts. You might have had clammy palms, a racing heart, fidgeted, or literally sat at on the edge of your seat, desperate to know what happened next. All of things are signs that the author applied suspense techniques, not just to engage you, but to throw you in the pot and seal the lid so you can feel every last ounce of emotional turmoil. The real trick is to maintain a level of uncertainty throughout the story, so the reader worries about the outcome and is left pleasantly spent by the end.
How does it apply to all genres?
The level of suspense you find in different genres does vary, as does the way information is revealed, but the suspense techniques still apply.
For example, in a Cosy Mystery the suspense will be more temperate than in a thriller. You are likely to use the relationship angst to create uncertainty, instead of the threat of imminent harm from a crazed predator or solving an enigma rather than expecting something scary to jump out of the nearest shadow. A Young Adult story may be less graphic than an adult Paranormal, both in the way intimacy and violence is portrayed, but suspense will help to make both impossible to put down.
The scenarios at the heart of each story, the locations and types of characters that populate them, will depend on the norms of each genre.
How much do I need?
It’s important to ensure you identify opportunities to increase suspense, and fully explore them, to make the most of existing tension, and squeeze every bit of emotional value from your characters. Signs that you may need to increase the suspense in your story, are if you get feedback saying your story lacked a hook, is slow in places, or just didn’t grab/engage the reader.
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi say:
If a critique partner voices confusion over the emotional reaction of one of your characters, check to make sure the stimulus trigger is prominent.
In other words, make sure the character is behaving in a believable way, with realistic motivations.
How can you create suspense?
Authors use a range of techniques to create uncertainty for their characters, and apprehension for their readers, but it’s important to remember that creating suspense isn’t necessarily about putting your characters in physical danger. It’s about engaging the reader, making them care about your character’s journey, and then giving them good reason why their goals might not be fulfilled. Leave them wanting more, right up until the Happily Ever After.
Create an engaging character
You can do this by giving your character something they care deeply about, and then threatening to take it away, but in a romantic story none of that will matter if the reader isn’t fully engaged with the character first. You need to create a character the reader cares about. I’m not going to focus too much on emotional engagement here, but it involves creating a character the reader can identify/sympathise with, that has believable motivations, and actively pursues their goals.
Raise the stakes
The character’s goal must be important enough to have dire consequences, e.g. they don’t just want a lot of money to buy a shiny new car, but they need it to pay for their dying sister’s medical treatment.
Make it clear early on what the consequences of failure are for your character (or at least what they believe them to be at the beginning of the story). Then throw increasingly difficult situations at them, which in turn diminishes the likelihood of them succeeding. Leave your character no other option than to face her greatest emotional fear by the climax.
Giving your character a deadline to get something done is also a great way to heighten anxiety levels. You want to put them under enough pressure to expose what they’re really made of.
Hook the reader in by raising questions that make them curious, about what’s going to happen next, what might have happened in the past, and what course of action the protagonist or antagonist will take next. One way to do this, is to show the reader things that the characters don’t know. Another is to leave them hanging mid action or mid decision at the end of a chapter.
By raising doubts about how the character is going to get out of this sticky situation, or win the love of her life, you make the reader apprehensive. Do this over and over throughout the course of the story, and they’ll reach nail-biting anxiety. That’s what suspense is all about!
Use techniques like putting the character:
Alexandra Sokoloff is brilliant at having her protagonist and antagonist come so close to crossing paths as the detective follows the serial-killer’s trail of destruction, that the reader is in a constant state of panic, because disaster seems imminent over and over again.
Leave a trail of breadcrumbs
Clues aren’t just for crime stories. There are all sorts of clues and hints you can scatter along the way to build the reader’s expectations. They might be obvious, or subtle, in which case the reader realises their significance once the climax is reached.
I liken clues to a trail of breadcrumbs, because they are sprinkled in here and there in small pieces. Some of those breadcrumbs might foreshadow what’s going to happen, and others might selectively withhold information. Done properly, the reader will have just enough foresight to build their expectations of trouble/failure/ danger.
Be aware of your word choices when building suspense. Choose a word that supports the tone of the scene, and stick to straightforward words in the midst of action. Sentence length is a great way to show urgency, but even though you may use more short sentences during action scenes and longer ones during retrospection, still vary them enough to avoid monotony.
Prolong the outcome
As Nicholas Sparks said:
Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy.
If your character figured out the best course of action and achieved their goal easily, it would be a short and hassle-free story, and totally kill any tension. In order to build the suspense, you should hint at what could go wrong and draw-out the angst for as long as reasonably possible. The suspense lies in between promising something awful and it actually happening, so make the most of it.
A romantic example of this, is creating sexual tension. Reading about a couple tearing one another’s clothes off and getting hot and steamy might be a lot of fun, but it’s the way the author draws out those longing looks and tantalizing touches that lead up to the sex, which creates eager anticipation.
You can still build lulls of retrospection and small wins into the story. This provides the reader a chance to catch her breath, and is a great opportunity to anchor them in your character’s motivations and expectations, ready for the next onslaught of drama.
Remember, it’s not the outcome that creates suspense, but the uncertainty of the journey. I hope I have inspired you to tease out every last morsel of suspense in your story. If you’d like to chat in-depth about this topic or get some personalised feedback about adding suspense to your story, then grab a place in my next The Pressure Cooker of Suspense course.
The ultimate course to help you create delicious tension!