One phrase — one sentence, really — can help most authors make their stories more tense, more dramatic, more gripping.
I don’t know who said it, but that may be the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, most authors don’t seem to follow it.“If your characters ever meet you, they should punch you in the face.”
So what does it mean? How do you get your characters angry enough that were they real, they’d want to punch you silly for all the things you put them through?
Four Ways to Add Tension to Your Book
- Don’t take it easy on your characters. Follow the three D’s: Disappointment, Danger, and Dire Straits. In fact, if you can, have your character experience all three. No matter what the genre, your character can experience disappointment. Even in a hard-boiled war novel, a character can watch a comrade die, lose the battle, or fail to get promoted. Even in the softest piece of chicklit, a character can experience danger, whether a threat from a lover, the fear of a secret romance being discovered, or a vengeful neighbor/relative/friend. Not all danger has to be physical or deadly. It can simply be a threat to a way of life, security, finances, etc. In other words, dire straits. Whatever you choose, give your character obstacles to overcome.
- Don’t wrap up problems too quickly. Remember
Indiana Jones? Every time it looked like a scene was about to end,
something went wrong. Those scenes went on for ten minutes without ever
feeling like it. Yet, authors often seem to be in a rush to wrap up
their characters’ problems. Just remember, nice, neat chapter endings
don’t push the story forward. It’s rare that an argument ends with a
nice cup of coffee and a heartfelt apology, so why should it for your
character? If your character is locked in a room (whether real or
metaphorical), don’t have them suddenly discover a hidden key. Make them
work to get through their problems, even if it takes several pages or
- Keep the problems coming. One problem should lead to another, should lead to another, should lead to another… or maybe three or four problems at once, because if you think juggling three balls at once is hard, try juggling them when they’re on fire. Problems can wax and wane, but they should keep coming, and in different spheres of the character’s life. Personal, professional, expected, unexpected — you name it, keep ’em coming. It doesn’t have to be a breakneck pace, but it has to be often enough to hold our attention — unless, of course, you’re writing a thriller — then keep it at a breakneck pace.
- Create problems big and small. In To Kill a Mockingbird,
Atticus faced the big problem — the trial — as well as even bigger
problems, like an entire culture’s prejudices, a small-town’s biases,
threats to his children, and smaller ones, like raising Scout and Jem as
a widower. Heck, he even faced a rabid dog. Not all problems need to be
huge. After all, life gives us big problems and small problems, often
simultaneously, so mix it up. And while you have to build your problems
to build tension, meaning your conclusion needs the biggest problem of
all, don’t be afraid to drop in small difficulties, even annoyances,
along the way. It will keep your readers engaged and rooting for your
character(s) to persevere.
Which is part of the problem. A book, and by extension, its characters, is an author’s baby. Oh, it’s easy to heap misfortune on your villain(s), but it’s hard to hurt your heroes. You want your antagonist to get his comeuppance, but good authors come down hard on their protagonists, too. They try the very souls of the characters they love. It’s not personal; it’s just good literature.
So, ask yourself when writing your story, “Would this character want to punch me in the face after this?”
If not, find a way to make sure they do. And if they do, make sure they go for a knock-out blow.