Dramatic Tension

(Yet another in the series of Twitter threads I’m translating to blog posts! Enjoy.)

So I know I talk a lot about how you need compelling conflict and stakes to have a gripping story. But on a line-by-line and page-by-page level, what keeps me reading is their more nebulous cousin, dramatic tension.

Basically, dramatic tension is what gives you that feeling of OMG I HAVE TO KEEP READING. It’s what keeps you up past your bedtime with a really good book.

But the really wild thing about dramatic tension is that it can come from SO MANY DIFFERENT SOURCES!

The obvious one is I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT! This is an especially great one to use with your chapter breaks—ending a chapter when your character has just been stabbed, or the main character’s dark secret has just been publicly revealed, etc.

But there are lots more, like:

  • I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED IN THE PAST (when you darkly hint at the Tragic Backstory Incident for a while rather than just dumping it up front)
  • I NEED TO KNOW WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON (when Mysterious Events are Afoot and we only have glimpses)
  • 

I KNOW A BAD THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN AND I’M DREADING IT (An inevitable confrontation or crushing revelation; an ambush the readers know about in advance but the characters don’t)
  • I KNOW A GOOD THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN AND I CAN’T WAIT (eagerly watching a romance build)
  • I KNOW A THING WILL HAPPEN BUT NOT HOW (In Hunger Games, the tension isn’t really over whether Katniss will win, but over knowing that for her to win, everyone else must die and she may have to be the one to kill them; you NEED to see how that plays out)
  • I KNOW A THING HAPPENED BUT NOT HOW (every mystery ever)

I could go on, but you get the idea…usually there’s something the reader NEEDS TO KNOW about the story or its characters, but what that thing is can be surprisingly subtle or complex.

Sometimes you can create MORE tension by letting the reader in on a surprise, so they’re anticipating it (either eagerly or with dread), than by just springing it on them out of the blue.

Sometimes withholding information for a little while can create tension through mystery (which can be a great trick in SFF to avoid early info dumps).

Ideally, you want your dramatic tension to operate on multiple levels, with different kinds of tension, short term & long.

One thing I ask myself when I’m editing is “What is keeping the readers turning pages in this scene/chapter? Why don’t they put the book down at the end of it?”

If I don’t have a good answer, I need to up the dramatic tension.

About Melissa Caruso

I'm the author of the Swords & Fire trilogy from Orbit Books, including Gemmell Morningstar Award shortlisted THE TETHERED MAGE (October 2017), THE DEFIANT HEIR (April 2018), and THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (forthcoming April 2019). I love tea, adventure, and the great outdoors, and I've been known to swordfight in ballgowns. I live in Massachusetts with my husband, two amazing daughters, three cats, and a Labrador. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds. View all posts by Melissa Caruso

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