One of the very first books on craft I ever read, way back at the beginning of my writing career, was Writing the Breakout Novel, by our own Donald Maass. The book is full of excellent points on improving your craft (Don isn’t paying me to say that or anything; we’ve never met, and he has no idea even that I’m currently writing this post. Actually it’s kind of fan-girl trippy for me that I started out my writing career ordering a copy of his book, and now I actually get to be a fellow contributor of his here on WU), but for me the advice that I’ve undoubtedly turned to time and time again over the years has to do with tension. As in, it should fill every page of your story. Every. Single. Page.
That was something that I struggled with while writing my first (hideously bad) attempts at novels. I could identify the main conflict in my book– the major story problem facing my characters, sure. But how to create the kind of tension that permeates every paragraph on every single page . . . that was much harder to master. Luckily, 18 books later, it has gotten much easier. Micro and macro tension techniques are so much a part of my craft toolbox that they’re almost an instinctive reflex whenever I’m crafting a scene.
But it does occasionally still happen that I’ll be working on a chapter or a scene and realize that it suddenly feels . . . flat. Or just “off” somehow. Nine times out of ten, the problem is that I’ve forgotten the cardinal rule about making sure that tension is an integral part of every single page. That happened to me just this past week during a chapter of the current book I’m working on– and though I got that chapter (I hope– we shall see when it comes to final revisions) whipped into shape and revved up the tension, I wanted to put together this reminder list for myself and anyone else who might need it of possible go-to strategies for when you know your story is lacking tension but don’t know how to fix it.