Tips on Creating Reader Tension

We all like our lives to run smoothly, but emotional tension is what motivates readers to flip the pages of a novel. Part of the craft of writing fiction is knowing how to keep that tension taut. For genres such as suspense, mystery or thrillers, this is particularly important.

During the revision stage, authors usually need to increase the level of tension in their scenes and chapters. Make sure you have an “emotional hook” to lead your reader into the scene.

Tips on increasing tension in your scene/chapter:

  • Foster an emotional connection with your character. Reader sympathy and identification are crucial. Even if your reader has never been in a plane crash, your character’s fear is a universal emotion that a reader will identify with. Uncommon situations still evoke everyday emotions.

    Never exaggerate a character’s emotion but do show how an experience is felt through bodily reactions and thoughts.

    It will help if your protagonist has a strong desire for something and is thwarted in getting it. Everyone can relate to this.

  • Present vital situations … if events are inconsequential, the writing becomes flat and uninteresting. Why is this experience significant to your character?

  • Create an expectation of something happening and then an unexpected reversal (“twist”) that takes the story in a new direction, usually at the end of a scene or chapter. Readers love surprises but it still must make sense.

  • Force your character into deciding between two bad choices. Provide disastrous results.

  • Write conflict into every scene. And as much as possible, make dialogue adversarial.

  • Use time constraints to create more suspense.

  • Unsympathetic characters (your villains or antagonists) also evoke reader emotion (anger or repulsion) and this creates tension.

  • Leave your reader with questions and unsolved dilemmas.

Good luck with your rewrite. I know you can do it!

Thelma Mariano