Looking for how to add tension to you novel? Think back to the old saying:
“If there’s a gun on the wall in act one, scene one, you must fire the gun by act three, scene two. If you fire a gun in act three, scene two, you must see the gun on the wall in act one, scene one.”
Essentially, that loaded gun triggers tension because you’re expecting it to go off, waiting for it to go off, maybe even wanting it to go off.
But why is tension in stories so important? Because without it, no one is going to read your story. Would you read about Cinderella if she never had to work a day in her life, waltzed into the ball, and married the prince? No, the heart of Cinderella is in her overcoming her circumstances, overcoming the tension in her life.
You could even go far as to say that tension is the heart of any plot. It’s what keeps the pulse moving, increasing and decreasing based on how much tension there is.
So what are some ways writers can add tension in addition to introducing a weapon into the scene, like Chekov prescribes above? Check out a few tips below:
- The ticking time bomb: This is the fastest, and sometime the easiest, way to add tension because all you have to do is give something a deadline. Max has to clean up the raging party he threw before his parents get home. Lianna has to find the wizard before evil wipes out all the light in her land. Cinderella’s spell breaks at midnight.
- Being trapped/lost/losing someone else: Whether it be in prison, a maze, or even mentally, being stuck can up the stakes. Now, your character has to escape, has to find a way out of their current situation. Or, if someone else gets lost along the way, they have to find a way to go back for them or save them before something terrible happens.
- Being chased/followed: The opposite of being stuck in one place is having to flee from one quickly. The fear of getting caught is a great motivator of tension. Even just being followed on the streets, the constant looking back, changing direction, crossing the street, can go a long way in getting your reader’s heart pounding.
- Secrets/Lies/Who can you trust: Finding out someone has lied to your character can result in an immediate loss of trust, and when you don’t know who to trust, that instantly puts things on edge. Characters start questioning themselves and those they thought were on their side. Are their plans still safe? Should they call off the attack they had planned? Tension. Even a devoted husband planning a surprise birthday party for his wife can soon look suspicious through the eyes of a wife certain he must be hiding an affair.
- Rumors: Gossip can kill. The wrong words whispered into the ear of the king by his loyal advisor could sentence your main character to death. Someone hinting a character is really an undercover cop might be enough to convince the mob boss to do him in. Even going out late at night can set your neighbors’ tongues wagging and have deadly consequences. Just look at the episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” where neighbors turn on one another when it’s rumored one among them isn’t entirely human.
- Being threatened: The promise of an event can almost be as tension building as the event itself. Even if the threat isn’t immediate, just having it out there lingering can add slow burning tension. This is what the Chekhov quote is essentially getting at. Maybe it’s could be enough to have the gun go off in the end of the story, but as Chekhov tells us, it’s even better to let that threat simmer for a while, adding tension with each passing scene.
- Action scenes: Assuming these are fast-paced and full of heart-pounding action, then this is a quick way to add tension fast. It goes back to bringing in that loaded gun and having it be shot at our heroine as he or she breaks out of the lab with the formula for the cure that the world needs. As an add-on to this one, make sure that you actually include physical descriptions like your main character’s heart pounding and palms sweating, as those will also help add tension.
- Rage: People can be unpredictable when they’re angry. They can go off the rails. They can do bad things, things they wouldn’t even normally consider, things that might just keep your reader reading.
- Making the wrong decision: You can sometimes hear people shouting during movies for someone not to go to the basement alone in a horror movie…because you know the killer is down there! Making a wrong decision can throw your character into danger and probably give your reader anxiety as they wait to see how this will affect the plot.
- Give the reader information the character doesn’t have: If the reader knows your character is walking into a trap set by the main character’s best friend who we’ve discovered is the killer, there’s going to be some tension as the reader waits to see how this plays out. This might be more easily done in third person, but it’s not impossible to do through strong clues and actions in a story told in first person.
In the end, there are a myriad of ways to add tension. You just have to find the right combination to keep your story going and your readers on the edges of their seats. Having enough at stake helps get your readers invested, too, so make sure that your character faces not only obstacles to what they want, but that what they want is big enough to justify going through those obstacles to get it.
What’s you favorite way to add tension? Or do you have an example of a book that does it well? Share it in the comments.