How To Scare Your Readers: Upping the Tension in Your Fiction

When you’re reading and you can’t put a book down, it’s because the author has used certain techniques to up the tension. Tension is what makes you turn the pages, no matter what the genre might be, from suspense to romance to literary fiction. Here are some suggestions for how to increase the nail-biting factor in your writing through plot, character and language devices, along with some examples from young adult fiction.

PLOT

1. Start at the right scene. It must be able to build from that point, but it should also be a moment things start to change for your character. (Stolen by Lucy Christopher – Ty steals Gemma from her parents at an airport in Thailand. This happens in the first chapter.)

2. Contain the plot within a limited time. Don’t expand it over many years. (Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher – the main present day action happens in a day.)

3. Impose a time limit. By this time or date, the world will explode. (The Uglies by Scott Westerfield – When she is 16, she must get the operation to be pretty.)

4. Up the stakes as the novel goes along. Make it bad, then worse. But avoid tricking the reader into thinking there are high stakes when there aren’t, as with dream sequences. (In the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, most of the characters will die.)

5. Create sympathetic characters. Make the readers care about the characters. Develop the voice. If they relate to that character, they care about what happens.

6. Put the characters at risk. This could be emotional risk (If I Stay by Gayle Forman: When Mia learns that her family is dead, will she give up on life?) or real physical danger (The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney: When the boy who raped her discovers she’s told people, will he try to hurt her again?)

7. Unfold information regularly. Let the POV character learn more as the novel unfolds. We should constantly be guessing, just as the character is trying to figure things out. However, if your POV character knows something, we should know it too. Otherwise the reader will feel tricked. If the readers know some information, they’ll start guessing and then keep reading because they want to see if they were right. (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling – Is Snape good or bad?)

8. Avoid a Predictable Plot. Create unexpected twists. Especially add a twist near the end so that the reader knows it could have ended another way. (Shrek: We knew Shrek and Fiona would end up together but we didn’t know that Fiona would end up as an ogre.) (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green also has a twist at the end…but I can’t give it away in case you haven’t read it. Oooh….look at that tension.)

9. Provide multiple viewpoints. You can see the danger coming at the protagonist before the protagonist does. You know things the protagonist doesn’t know and you’re waiting for him/her to find out. (How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr – you have two viewpoints, and so you know things that the other character doesn’t know.)

10. Create difficult choices – No option is great, but the protagonist must choose one. Think of the game, Must Choose…there’s a reason it’s so fun. (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer – Bella must choose between a werewolf and a vampire.)

11. Add more complications. (Twilight– Could the love triangle between Edward, Jacob and Bella have more complications?)

12. Add more questions. At the end of every chapter, the reader must have a question in her mind. Always ask yourself what the question is and if you could turn up the stakes on it.

13. Add in some close calls. The protagonist didn’t get hurt, but almost did. (Twilight: Edward saves Bella many times at the very last minute. We fear one time he may be too late.)

14. Think in terms of extreme danger. Are you protecting your character in some way? When your character is in danger, make sure it’s closer to the death side of things, instead of breaking an arm. Push the protagonist to his or her limit, not so she breaks but so we fear she might. Don’t be too easy on her/him. If you re-read your novel and you see that you’re feeling more afraid for a secondary character, this is a warning sign that you may be overprotecting the main character.

15. Add uncertainty. Nobody has done this thing before. Or somebody tried it and it didn’t work. (Hunger Games: Katniss shoots the apple.)

16. Sometimes the question is how, not what. Sometimes we don’t need to know if it’s going to happen, sometimes we know, but we want to know how it’s going to happen. (Hunger Games: we know Katniss is going to live, but we want to know how and what happens to those she cares about.)

CHARACTER

1. What matters most to your character? Put that thing/person in danger or take it away. (Hunger Games: What matters most to Katniss is her sister, Primrose, and when her name is drawn to fight in a battle to the death, Katniss is thrust into action.)

2. Create a powerful antagonist. Your antagonist should have certain advantages over your protagonist – stronger, more beautiful, more popular. (Twilight: Dangerous vampires overcoming weak, regular girl … in the beginning.)

3. Give your character a personal weakness or fear to overcome. The more common this fear is, the better. Use people’s natural fears. For example, the fear of heights is a common fear. The fear of frogs is not. All of us people who are afraid of heights can get caught up in the terror of someone who must jump off a building. (Divergent by Veronica Roth: When Tris jumps off the building into the abyss, what reader doesn’t feel their heart racing a little faster?)

4. Make your character suffer. That way, when your character is victorious, we cheer much louder. (Harry Potter – His scar makes him writhe in pain anytime Voldemort is near. He’s not invincible.)

5. Give your character some past failure and a fear that he/she will fail again. The backstory is important, even for building tension. (Harry Potter – His parents died protecting him. A friend or someone close to him dies in every book. As a result, we fear for his closest friends, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.)

6. Place your characters in unusual situations, something nobody has ever heard about. (Holes by Louis Sachar: boys at a juvenile detention center have to dig holes five feet wide/five feet deep.)

7. Keep your reader asking if what the characters are saying and thinking is real or true. This is useful especially in the case of an unreliable narrator. (Liar by Justine Larbalestier)

8. Make sure your character never gives up. They might consider giving up, but they don’t. They should keep fighting even when it seems certain they will lose. (The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle – Even though her whole family has been killed in a car accident, Laurel never gives up.)

9. Give your characters opposing motivations and desires. This is a subtle way to increase tension. When they are speaking, it will add subtext and provide a contrast between what their body language is doing and what they are saying, which adds to the questions in the reader’s mind.

LANGUAGE

1. Vary the pace of your novel. Use shorter sentences for intense fight scenes and longer sentences for descriptive sections. Or add extra description; draw it out so that we are waiting for something to happen, dying for it to happen, like a first kiss. Sometimes a fight scene is more powerful if shown from all angles, slowly with each little details. In real life, fights happen so fast. If you draw out the moment the first punch is thrown, you’ll add tension.

2. Don’t be afraid to use fragments – sparingly. (Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl: check out the use of fragments to increase tension.)

3. Provide strong details, using all the senses. When you do this, the reader feels like he/she is part of the scene and becomes involved emotionally. (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

4. Don’t forget cliffhangers. You don’t need to tidy everything all neat at the end of a chapter. Leave readers hanging so they have to keep reading. If you have more than one POV character, try to cut a scene leaving one character hanging; then go to scene B and leave character B hanging. (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor)

5. Avoid long, flowery descriptions. If you are careful about what details you use, readers will fill in the rest with their imaginations. (Harry Potter: Rowling wastes very few words on descriptions. When Harry first sees the castle, it’s just a few lines.)

Go ahead now. Write. And scare the pants off your readers.

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