Previously, I’ve talked about the importance of conflict in a novel. (See post here.) Conflict keeps readers engaged. But what creates conflict, and how can you be sure yours keeps readers turning the pages of your book? When I scan bestseller lists and read the blurbs of the books on them, I get a sense that one element is included in most novels that many readers love. That element is tension.
How can a writer add tension to a story? In my earlier post about conflict, I suggested three questions to ask yourself as you write:
1. What does my protagonist want more than anything?
2. What obstacles stand in the way of her/him getting what she/he wants?
3. What is at stake if she/he doesn’t get it?
Once you’ve answered those questions, you can add tension by raising the stakes for your main character(s) throughout the middle of the book. Make whatever your protagonist faces get worse. One way to do this is to have a ticking clock. A ticking clock is a plot device that adds the pressure of time to your story. As your protagonist works to overcome the obstacles preventing her from getting what she wants, now there’s a reason that she has to solve them within a specified time frame.
Here’s a simple example:
More than anything, Sarah wants to buy her dream house. It has been on the market for over a year (#1 above – what she wants). But although she’s been setting aside money out of every paycheck, she doesn’t yet have enough cash for a downpayment. Besides that, she doesn’t have an excellent credit history (# 2 above – obstacles). If she can’t come up with the money and straighten out her credit, she won’t be able to buy the house and will have to keep living in the dump she rents that smells like mold, has a leaky roof, and drafty windows. And she’ll have to continue dealing with her negligent landlord (# 3 above – what’s at stake).
Okay, this story has conflict, but how can we up the stakes with a ticking clock to add more tension?
What if Sarah’s landlord announces that she must vacate her rental in a month because he sold it and the buyers are going to live there? Or what if Sarah finds out that someone who works in her office is also interested in purchasing the house of her dreams and that they plan to make an offer in six weeks? To make the situation even more tense and interesting, both scenarios could also come into play at the same time. Now Sarah has a specific deadline in place to overcome her obstacles and get what she wants more than anything – her dream house; she has only four to six weeks to work things out . A ticking clock has been set in place and the stakes have been raised.
Although adding a ticking clock to the situation faced by your protagonist is an effective way to raise the stakes and add more tension to the story, it isn’t the only way. But that’s a discussion for another blog post. Stay tuned!