8 Ways to Create Tension in Writing or HOW TO DO THE DANGLE



/Beth Wareham

Tension in a book is often why we turn a page, that endless sense of WTF IS GONNA HAPPEN! The really good writers have an instinct for taking you to the edge, throwing you off and bringing you back up again to stand refreshed, marveling at the view. Corporate entertainment wonks call this the “twist” but it’s merely a good way to write: keep everyone on a dangle.

How to do the dangle? Below are a few simple tricks I’ve learned over the years to keep readers wanting to read onward. You’ll have to ask them if any of it worked.

But here they are. Try some in your writing. See what might work for you:

1. End a sentence with a question of sorts. I don’t mean a question with a big old “?” at the end, I mean a question like “will Patty have sex with the giant hot black man standing in front of her…” That’s the moment I’d break the chapter and make the reader wait.

2. Alluding to dark pasts. I love this one. A completely random character suddenly gets full use by remarking upon a secret buried in a hero or heroine’s past. Just try and tell the reader at one point what that past was. This is why we have sticky notes.

3. Creating a scene and leave the resolution off. Say “how was she to know that _____ was in her past, but perhaps her future as well?”

4. Start a scene in mid-action (Hillary Mantel is a GENIUS at this) and the reader is entranced trying to figure out what’s happening when. Finish the action and then go back and start the beginning of it as a flash back. Page-turning catnip.

5. Paragraph breaks: Use paragraphs breaks like you are a creating a trail of crumbs and each break is a step forward to pick the next one off the ground. The first sentence of the next paragraph pulls them so ….spread it out:

“He found the receipts from Wichita Falls in the pocket of his yellow short sleeved shirt. His shoes, socks and pants appeared unsullied, but the plastic protector inside his pocket of receipts had been crumpled, clawed at even. Jean knew he was cheating on her.”

6. WORD CHOICE: Chose tense words. For instance, “Walter stood in line, hoping he’s soon get to the window.”

“Walter stood in line, sweet meandering down his spine, as he waited to get to the window and buy his ride towards freedom.”

The words “sweat” and “ride towards freedom” suggest a tension you want the reader to feel, not just that he’s trying to buy a bus ticket. Someone’s chasing him. Use every moment you have to keep the mood of the book right and that means WORD CHOICE.

7. Text reads faster when sentences are short and text reads slower when sentences are longer. Use it to your advantage and vary the lengths frequently to keep the reader’s attention. For instance:

“Peter slammed it down. For thirty years, he had kept the will secret from the family but after the chaos, the loss, the blood, the ICU, the whispered forced words of his dying mother, the will meant nothing any more, nothing in the face of eternity without the one person who loved him no matter what.”

You see, one short one, one long one. Easy!

8. Dare to dangle. If there is one thing that kills a book quickly, it is a fear of being audacious, a fear of shock and awe. Dangle your reader over a ledge, give him a ride, take her flying, let the kid go down the slide faster than he ever thought possible. Work the tension of life and death into your manuscript because that is the tension we know, that is the tension we live with ever day.

Tension is the human condition. It will feel very familiar to your reader and they will like reading it.

Now go write.

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