Tension is an emotion.
Making a reader feel tension is, in part, a function of what is happening in the story, and other Fictorians are doing a fine job of covering that. I want to dig down, though. I want to get past plot structure, and characters, and all of the things we usually talk about. Today is not a lesson in simply writing fiction. Today, I want to talk about the words themselves.
Speed is key. Short words mean fast reading. Short sentences mean fast reading. Fast reading means fast thinking. Fast thinking means excitement.
Extended vocabulary, on the other hand, will tend to result in a slower, more ponderous pace of comprehension. In addition, one can expect that a more complex sentence structure will also result in increased temporal periods for absorption of material. In turn, this style of writing can lead to a more leisurely, intellectual feel for one’s reader.
See what I did there?
Tension is a function of two things: excitement and a lack of resolution. You want to keep your reader on a knife’s edge for a bit? Shorten everything. Boil your words down to the simplest form. Boil your sentences down to subject-verb-direct object structure. Lose as many phrases, clauses, or anything extraneous as you possibly can. Make it so a third-grader could read it. Put in a refrain (see above where its X means Y), because once the brain is on a roll it will simply speed up.
The goal here is not to cut back on the amount of information you’re throwing at the reader. The goal here is to get the reader to absorb the information as quickly as you possibly can. From a writer’s perspective, this can be tough. It’s actually faster for us to write one massive sentence than it is to break that baby up into little chunks. When we’re flowing, we don’t want silly little things like sentence structure to stop us. So when one is writing a tense scene, the knee-jerk reaction is to write longer stuff. Bigger words, longer sentences, and massive, hulking paragraphs.
But when you’re revising, you need to break that up. Read those two paragraphs up above again. You’ll burn through the fast paragraph in about half the time it takes to read the slow one.
Don’t think of it as “half the time,” though. Flip the equation. What really matters is the amount of information hitting a person’s brain in a set period of time. In other words, the boiled-down writing style means that your reader is getting twice as much information per second. She’s racing to keep up with you, and her conscious mind is running at a dead sprint to keep up with her subconscious one. You ever run down a hill only to find that you have to keep accelerating or you’re going to completely beef it? Reading a scene written in that boiled-down language feels like that.
Now, don’t write everything for speed. Sometimes, you want to slow it down. Let your reader breathe in parts by lengthening everything. Get a little purple from time to time. I’m not saying you should write for speed all the time; what I’m saying here is that, by controlling the speed at which your reader processes your story, you can create tension in certain scenes by having them accelerate the speed at which they are reading, and you can relieve tension by allowing them to slow down. By controlling the speed of their comprehension, you can make them feel tense and they will never know why.
So don’t use this trick alone. Use it in conjunction with all the other tricks being written about by my colleagues this month. Just remember, your goal is to control all of a reader’s brain, and word, sentence, and paragraph structure is the gateway to triggering that subliminal feeling of tension.