I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about dramatic tension. I think manipulating dramatic tension is just as important as plot, character, and voice, but it doesn’t seem to get talked about as often. Yet dramatic tension is often the biggest factor that keeps me reading—it’s what makes a book un-put-down-able. It’s how writers can strive to hook readers from page one and keep them all the way through until The End.
I have a ton to say about dramatic tension, but for this post I’m going to start out talking about using dramatic tension at different levels of granularity. What do I mean by that? Well, for an example of a masterwork of dramatic tension, let’s look at The Hunger Games.
On the grand, overarching level, we’re desperate for the entire book to find out how the games will end. Who will win? Who will live? Will Katniss have to kill anyone she cares about? At this level, we’ve got the key dramatic questions for the whole book. As writers, we need to know what those questions are, make sure they’re sufficiently compelling, introduce them nice and early, and sustain interest in the answers through the whole book (which of course involves throwing in a variety of twists and wrinkles along the way).
But tension also operates at other levels. We have lots of smaller questions we care about just as much in the moment as we do about the big ones. What will Katniss do about Peeta’s big public confession? How the heck is she going to get down out of that tree alive? Will she wind up pitted against Rue? These many layered sources of tension operate on different scales (scene by scene, chapter by chapter, etc) as well as in different areas (physical danger, romantic tension, etc). It’s the intersection of different kinds of tension, playing out in both the short and the long term, that makes it impossible to stop turning pages.
If the only source of tension in the book was the long term question of whether Katniss would live, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting and engaging. It’s the personal implications of the life and death choices she has to make, small and large, moment by moment, that keep us reading. If she only had one big choice at the end, we’d never make it that far. As writers, we need something at stake in every scene—something specific to that scene, not just the overall stakes for the book (though it can certainly tie in to the larger stakes).
At various stages, I like to do a dramatic tension check on a book. I find it’s useful at the outlining stage and again during the revision phase. I try to identify the sources of dramatic tension for the book as a whole, for each major arc/act of the book, and on a chapter-by-chapter level. I ask myself “What is the reason the reader can’t put down the book at this point? What compels them to keep reading, even if they really should go to bed or get some chores done?” If I don’t have a good answer, or if my answer is vague or wishy-washy, or if it’s the same as it’s been for the last 3 chapters, I know I have some work to do.