Creating Tension – Part 2
Part 1 looked at the importance of creating immediacy, conflict, emotion, escalating problems and generating lots of drama to help develop and maintain tension, but there are some more elements to consider, too, such as pacing, providing twists and turns, and probably the most fundamental thing – description.
A sense of pace works by seemingly speeding up the narrative and then deliberately slowing things down. Varying the pace is a great way to intensify things for the reader. Think of their narrative journey like a roller coaster – it’s never constant and never stays still, it’s up and down, slow and fast, all at the right moments.
Tension often works best when the pace is slowed right down (as opposed to fast paced action scenes, which heighten drama). That’s because it allows the reader to take in everything being described to them – the tone, the atmosphere, the words, the emotions and the conflict. It forces everything to become focused within the scene.
For instance, imagine if a scene takes place in a large house at night and everyone is asleep, but downstairs a shadow makes its way through the house. A slow pace lends a darker atmosphere and tone, which allows the unease of the moment – a sinister stranger lurking in the home – to deepen and draw the reader in. If the scene is rushed, then any tension will be lost.
By controlling the pace of a scene, you can control the tension you create.
Another thing to consider is key revelations, sub plots and story twists. They can help heighten tension in a different way than pacing does. For instance, there might be a revelation of a family secret which shocks everyone. This might create anxiety and anger and other emotions, which in turn generates tension. Perhaps there’s a plot twist that takes the story in another direction to deliberately wrong-foot the reader. The by-product of these types of events is disagreement, discord, conflict…all the stuff you’d expect to find to create tense moments.
There is, of course, one thing that you can’t do without, and that’s description.
The way you describe what’s going on in a scene is vital if you want to create a sense of tension for your reader. The right words and the arrangement of those words is the difference between a dull flat scene that doesn’t generate any emotional response and a scene that is atmospheric, tonal, full of conflict, emotion and makes the reader sit up and take notice. For example:
A stench clung to the rat-infested, concrete hallway as the lightbulbs above flickered. A tall shadow parted the darkness and hunched forward as his footsteps echoed down the corridor.
He turned a corner and saw a thin shaft of light at the end of the darkened hallway. The light wavered, and a shadow moved…
The description sets the scene and creates some atmosphere, but there isn’t much detail to help the reader – there’s no pace variation and no sense of anxiety, so there isn’t much tension. But by using the right descriptions to pace the scene and heighten the atmosphere and mood, it’s possible to generate a sense of tension, for instance:
Dark, fetid handprints led a path down the hallway. A piss-tainted stench lifted from the cold floor and wafted through darkened, rat-infested passageways. Bits of paper scuttled against the cool air, then settled again. Distorted reflections shimmered from corners as a line of dangling light bulbs flickered in tandem.
Bare concrete, cold like ice sheets, sucked the dim light from the narrow corridor as the tall shadow parted the darkness and hunched forward, each footstep an empty echo that reverberated long after his presence had drifted into the shifting umbra. He turned a corner and focused on the thin shaft of light at the end of the darkened hallway as the muffled rhythm of fear filled his head.
The light wavered; a shadow moved…
Tension can be physical, psychological, emotional or atmospheric. It’s the tautness of a scene, the anxiety, the emotion, the atmosphere, the tone, the depth, pace and the amount of conflict that all come together to give the reader that sense of, “Oh no, what’s going to happen next?” It works by manipulating the reader; it evokes a response. A story without much tension is a story with no life to it.
Sometimes the unknown and fear itself creates all the drama and tension you need.