Where Does All That Writing Tension Come From?

This week, I’ve been talking about story tension which basically comes down to this question:

Where does all that tension and all that suspense comes from?

That makes it sound like this is a blog post about dealing with rejection and deadlines and cranky editors. It isn’t.

All of us have tension in our lives. We worry about our loved ones, our jobs, our selves, our country. The tension comes from multiple sources.

That’s how it works in writing, too.

Suspense can come from:

  1. Plot
  2. Characters
  3. Place

Suspense from Plot

 In his Essay “Killing Them in Suspense” William Reynolds writes, “The most obvious source of suspense is plot – indeed, in genre fiction especially, it’s nearly impossible to separate the two.”

 He cites the movie North by Northwest (one of editor Andrew Karre’s favorites about ten years ago).

Poor Cary Grant is besieged by nasty guys who are 100 % positive that Dashing Cary is someone they’ve been trying to capture for a long, long time. Dashing Cary Grant dashes around so he doesn’t get caught. We root for him. We worry for him. We want to know what will happen and there’s a real danger that the bad guys will catch him and Dashing Cary will dash no more.

Suspense from Characters

 What your characters do also creates suspense. Their actions, their reactions will increase the tension. This is why your characters have to be flawed. Their flaws up the stakes. In the Harry Potter books, Harry’s stubborn streak makes him vulnerable. When he chooses to dash off — ala Cary Grant —  and save the world alone we worry for him, but that’s his character choice to do that.

 We don’t know if Harry will survive Voldemort, the evil wizard. We don’t know if Harry will even survive his Tri-Wizard Level tests and we care because we care about Harry. We worry about him.           

Suspense from Place

It’s the “unpredictable nature” of certain places, which also create suspense Reynolds believes.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, Sunnydale is a Hellmouth and all sorts of demons can come on through. The demons play by different rules. The place creates suspense. Lots of science fiction and fantasy novels do this.

In many literary novels the unpredictable weather creates suspense.

Stephen King uses the rural landscape of Maine, the isolation of homes and people to create suspense. Stephenie Meyers does the same thing in her Twilight series.

Reynolds uses his own first line in his novel, Things Invisible, to show how it’s done. What’s the first line?

            “Days like this remind you that you’re going to die.”


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best thrillers The People Who Kill
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