Making Tension Tense
What really makes tension tense?
The modern reader’s expectation of tension—a story that stands above the crowd—can seem to the aspiring writer sometimes unbearably high. And yet it’s always been true that storytelling is about tension. The reader has always longed to be transported physically to another dimension through sheer adrenaline.
So let’s talk about what makes tension tense.
The oldest trick in the book.
Hemingway wrote so beautifully of this in his memoir of Paris in the 1920s, A Moveable Feast.
Knowing—as we do—that curiosity is the single most powerful reader motivation out there, we can pretty easily guess that giving the reader a devastating question and then withholding the answer fuels reader curiosity like nothing else.
This is why I read so much vintage mystery. Those things are absolutely chocked to the eyeballs with questions to which the answers are adroitly yet firmly withheld until the final pages. Thriller and romance, the other two biggest-selling modern genres, do the same.
So we writers focus upon our scenes set in concrete details and our forward motion, we eliminate all internal dialog, and we minimalize internal monologue and exposition as much as humanly possible.
Through these simple techniques, we keep the reader’s curiosity piqued yet unsatisfied, page after page, for literally hundreds of pages—until the very. . .last. . .moment. . .
When we limit ourselves in this way to anchor the reader in scenes, it creates—inside the reader—enormous contrast between the stress of not-knowing, or “push,” and the joy of realization, or “pull.”
Two opposite poles, extreme contrast between them, and the reader caught inextricably in the middle, with nowhere to go except forward: this Push/Pull Rhythm moves the story out of the book and into the reader’s body, which is where all story rightfully belongs.
We never tell the reader what’s happening beneath the surface unless it makes that surface only more fascinating. Subtext is for the reader to discover.
Their ultimate delight.
“Does this skirt make my butt huge?”
“It’s fine.” She ran her hands over her own bony hips with a satisfied smile.
Now, what’s missing from this snippet of scene?
Why, the explanation, of course. What are these two characters thinking? What’s going on inside their heads? The reader doesn’t want the writer to tell them. Through simple dialog, action, and description the reader is drawn irrevocably into the scene—into the conflict between these two characters and the subtext obviously leading them forward toward ultimate disaster.
She raised her eyebrows and gave a sour laugh. “I like your tie.”
“So do I,” he said quietly, smoothing it.
What’s happening between these characters? The reader doesn’t want the writer to explain. Once they know that, they stop reading.
The reader wants to follow these characters through the ensuing pages, venturing deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole to find out for themself why these characters are at odds in such a peculiar manner and what they’re going to do about it.
“You’ve got no proof! Either show me your warrant, or I’ll be obliged to call my lawyer.”
The Chief-Inspector smiled. “You’re free to go.”
The man stopped and stared, and after a long moment the color drained from his face.
Why is he free to go? Why is the Chief-Inspector smiling about it? And why does unexpected freedom make the color leave the man’s face?
Will he leave, or has this surprise created such tension between the characters that he’ll be unable to tear himself away, until he learns—and the reader learns with him—what’s behind this smile that must be a mask, this generosity the man believes (or knows) he has not earned?
Questions, questions, questions!
The reader must keep reading in order to learn the answers.
But, then, what about the opposite end of the spectrum of tension technique?
Sometimes a succinct, focused line of exposition or internal monologue is appropriate—so long as it makes the reader’s internal tension worse:
He gave an odd gesture Maigret had never seen a French businessman make before.
Alleyn didn’t want Troy to know.
In a flash, Miss Marple understood.
All of these brief, fleeting moments of insight beneath the surface of the scenes depend upon the reader having read previous scenes in these novels.
However, the insights don’t show the author’s hand. Instead, the author depends upon the reader to have learned these characters so well that a single line exposes the great significance underlying the actual text—that essential subtext.
Maigret, wonderful creation of the impossibly-productive Belgian author Georges Simenon, is a Parisian Chief-Inspector with a long and spectacular history of solving unsolvable crimes. There is pretty much nothing Maigret has never seen a French businessman do.
Therefore, the reader concludes from the exposition, either this is not a French businessman (as he must, logically, have lead Maigret or at least the reader to believe) or this is a French businessman with some bizarre twist to his personality, making him ever more intriguing and his fate ever more inexplicable.
This reader conclusion pulls the reader further in and makes them even more a part of the story.
But which answer is it? That push fuels the reader’s curiosity!
Alleyn is also a Detective Chief-Inspector, this one a charmer invented by the New Zealand author Ngiao Marsh to forge a brilliant reputation for solving crime for London’s Scotland Yard. Agatha Troy, the reader already knows from earlier in this novel, is Alleyn’s wife, the one person in the world from whom he withholds nothing.
The reader realizes, therefore, that this must be an impossible situation for Alleyn. And so the reader turns the pages quickly, reading with greater and greater anxiety, in order to discover what the charming and unflappable Alleyn will do about this, how he will behave when all other avenues are closed to him and he is trapped in an untenable situation in which he has no other way to behave.
Again, this realization pulls the reader in. Now they have even more investment in discovering what happens in this particular story.
And the fact that they don’t know yet gives them that push of extra tension.
Miss Marple, of course, is not a Chief-Inspector in any country or even an Inspector at all. She is a ridiculously sharp-witted elderly village woman upon whom nothing is ever lost.
And when the reader learns that Miss Marple finally understands the secret of the mystery, reader investment in the story goes through the ceiling—now they, too, feel an uncontrollable urge to understand, armed as they are with the author’s promise that Miss Marple knows and the assumption that she’ll eventually share that flash of illumination.
Unfortunately, Miss Marple’s creator, the inimitable Agatha Christie, can take another third of the novel to get around to Miss Marple sharing, and in the meantime the reader turns the pages so fast they’re practically tearing them out of the book.
Learning that someone the reader trusts knows a secret is a fabulous pull. They know! the reader thinks. That means I will too!
And Christie’s tantalizing spinning-out toward the moment of sharing gives the reader an enormous push straight forward, deep into those oh, so-secretive pages.
Full-on reader addiction!
Which brings us to the beginnings of stories and the reason so many first lines are exposition or internal monologue, even in stories by authors thoroughly fluent in the techniques of creating tension through scenes.
Because that’s the one place in which the writer must lasso the reader’s curiosity without relying upon knowledge of previous scenes.
This is also why we can get away with hooks in which the reader has no idea on earth what’s going on.
Readers love to be mystified!
Truly, we don’t want to write stories about which the reader says, “Oh, I see. I get it. All is explained.”
We want to write stories that make the reader sit bolt upright with their hair on end and shriek uncontrollably, “I can’t stand how good this is!”
Note: I must always thank our fellow Writer Unboxed contributor Don Maass for teaching us that we need “tension on every page.” If we never learn anything else about writing stories, we must learn this one succinct insight.
Our Writer Unboxed mama Therese Walsh gave us a lesson once on the first sentence as an amuse-bouche that we should all be re-reading regularly.
Also, I discuss the difference between internal dialog and internal monologue in the November issue of the Writer Unboxed newsletter.
What makes you shriek, “I can’t stand how good this is”?