Dramatic Tension and You!
This is a good book, you think pausing mid-chapter to catch a breath. Maybe you caught yourself gripping the pages a bit too hard, or sitting upright in your chair to get closer to the action. The action happening in this story unfolding before you is captivating and you love it. We all know the effects of a dramatic scene. The pulse-racing, heart-gripping action that keeps us glued to our seats, dying to know what happens next – a good story. But how do authors create such an amazing scene? Is it raw talent? Skill from years of scribbling furiously into a notebook? Pure luck? It’s actually a little of all three, but mostly that last one. Here’s a few tricks that you can use in your own writing to ramp up the dramatic tension, and keep your readers coming back for more.
You know what a cliffhanger is. you've seen them everywhere; they litter books, film, TV, and comics. The action is building, the suspense is growing, the characters are in imminent danger when suddenly-- the action stops at it’s height and cuts to a break. I know, it’s cliché, right? Far too many hacks have made a living off chapter jumping and changing viewpoints in the middle to keep you dangling. Luckily, that’s not what I’m talking about. Switching to a new scene in the middle of the last one is frustrating for readers, not exciting.
Cliffhangers used properly build suspense and tension, causing a reader to be drawn into a scene and read faster. You want them to read more -- that's the point. To make cliffhangers work for you, just keep in mind a few "do"s and "don't"s.
Do: use scene breaks to slow down a scene just enough for the gravity of the situation to sink in. Don't: use scene breaks to move to a new scene or character point of view with no or little action. Do: pause a scene for emphasis. Don't: pause a scene for surprise. Do: leave your characters in suspense. Don't: cut past all the action of a scene.
Good dramatic tension is all about giving your reader enough time to almost catch a breath, but not enough time to lose the momentum of a scene. Cliffhanger’s can be used without being cliché – I promise.
This can easily become a whole article in itself, so I'll try to keep it simple. Narrative distance is the imaginary space between an object or goal and the protagonist. This space is where the tension in your story is born.
Say you have a character who really wants a doughnut. They will have have to overcome many obstacles to get it -- the physical distance to the store, the emotional reaction of having to part with the money for the doughnut, the psychological battle over whether or not the doughnut is even a good idea or not, and the time it will take to acquire and eat the doughnut are all types of dramatic distance.
The key is all about creating space for the questions to arise in the readers’ mind. Is the doughnut shop too far away? How will they get there? Do they have enough money? Is it going to break their diet? Do they have time to eat it before their kids/siblings/friends find out they didn’t buy enough to share? The doughnut example is a silly one, but imagine if it was a rescue attempt. Your protagonist has to get somewhere to save their loved one from certain death, and they only have a few hours to do it.
You want your reader asking questions. It keeps them engaged in your story, and more willing to stick with you through the end.
Ugh, grammar? I get tense just thinking about it. It sounds too easy, right? The length and style of your sentences really can ramp up the tension in a scene. Have you ever read an action sequence where the characters were compelling, the plot was enticing, the goals, outcomes, and imagery were excellent, and you just. couldn’t. get. though. the. scene? It was most likely because the sentences were dragging.
If you’ve taken almost any writing workshop or literary criticism course anywhere in America then you’re likely familiar with “purple prose”. Purple prose, or purple passages, is overly flowery or ornate text that dilutes a theme, message, or style of a scene. What it does is distract the reader from the action and has them focus on the prose instead. (For an example read anything by John Steinbeck.) We all do it sometimes. I’m guilty of it almost any time I write – most of my articles are three times their final length after the first draft. Cutting out purple prose is just good writing practice, but here it has a specific purpose.
When the tension is low in a given scene, you can use longer, slower, even meandering sentences, because there’s no real rush to the characters or the reader. At some point, that changes. You want the tension to be higher. You tighten it up. Shorten the sentences. You use fewer adjectives. Shorter words. This draws the reader into a quicker pace, causing them subconsciously to read faster – a sure sign that they are interested.
If you’re trying to take a dragging scene and turn it into a high-tension moment, look first at your sentence structure. Cut out the purple prose and turn subordinate clauses into whole sentences.
Yep. grammar is tense.
Goals and outcomes
This is also the basis for a solid plot. You really can’t tell a good story without a goal and an outcome. If you want to ramp up the tension and keep your readers hooked your characters need to have many goals, all with the same outcome – failure.
OK, wow… that’s super cynical isn’t it? Don’t we want our heroes to win? Of course we do! But not easily. I present for you two scenarios.
One: A girl wants a new bicycle. She goes to her parents and tells them she would like one. They buy it for her. Now she has a new bike. The end.
Two: A girl wants a new bicycle. She’s afraid to go to her parents because she knows they’ve been having money troubles and doesn’t want to ask for too much. She musters up her courage and asks, but they say no. So she decides to find a job. No one will hire her. She finds $300 in an envelope on the side of the road, she knows she can either find the owner or use the money to buy her bike. She goes to spend the money on the bike and finds a woman panicking over losing they money she needed a plane ticket to her daughter’s funeral, so the girl give back the money. The girl is sad, but goes home. A month later the woman tracks her down and gives her a new bike. Now the girl just has to learn how to ride. The end.
Aside from the second one being a much longer story, it’s a much more compelling one. The girl has obstacles and trials she needs to overcome to get to her goal. In the end, it was a twist of fate that helped her get there, but it was only because of her own actions earlier in the story that it was possible. Along the way she had many little goals; asking her parents, finding a job, using the money, giving the money back – each a small step toward achieving the main (or story) goal – her new bike. Every time she failed to achieve her goal she was pushed further into the story, and every time she was denied her desire she drew new sympathy.
Simply stated, your protagonist should fail. Again and again and again – keep raising the stakes, keep making them fight for what they want. Not only will it will keep your readers excited, but as a side bonus it will help you develop your plot – and we all need help with that from time to time.
If you use these types of tension and are still having trouble, the problem might be elsewhere. You still need good pacing, a solid style, and a compelling plot, These few tricks won't solve the problem of dramatic tension all by themselves, but it will help keep your readers engaged so you can tell the story you’re trying to tell -- and that is the whole point, after all.