Creating Tension with Narrative Voice

Honestly? I’ve never thought about tension while writing. I’ve thought about conflict a whole lot: overarching conflict, conflict between characters, conflict with the environment, etc. But I’ve never framed it in my mind as “tension.” After some thinking, I decided it wouldn’t be quite right to offer advice about something that I don’t tend to think about while writing. However, I have noticed it while reading. So in lieu of offering advice, I’ve put together a list of memorable stories that created tension in a very unique way that may help you in your own writing. The fun of creating tension doesn’t have to be all your characters’ doing. By honing in on your narrative voice, you can create tension between you and your reader using a variety of techniques.

Tension Through Foreshadowing

In the classic book One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez sets up tension in the first half of his book by dropping the same line over and over: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembered…” Instantly, the reader questions this. Aureliano before a firing squad? How did he get there? Also… Colonel? When does he become a Colonel? With this line, the author continues to keep these questions fresh in the reader’s mind, and the reader continues on with the book in order to get the answers to those questions.

Tension Through Speaking Directly to the Reader

In one of the darkest children’s series out there, Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) adds a warning to the reader at the beginning of every book. In the very first book, he lays the land:

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things happen in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.”

By doing this, Snicket sets expectations and creates tension between himself and the reader. The reader fights the warning, thinking this, a children’s book, couldn’t end so badly. And yet, Snicket promises a unhappy ending. But what could that ending be? How could something so terrible happen to these wonderful children?

Tension Through Story Structure/Switching Timelines

This technique is a favorite among Literary Fiction authors and moviemakers. The author has one character telling the story as they remember it, allowing them to be the narrator. However, the switches from past to present is up to the author. That means right when something happens, the author has the power to pull back to present time, have the narrator reflect for a time, and then go back into the action. This undoubtedly drives some readers nuts, but can we deny it causes tension? Nope! An example of this would be Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, where our narrator, Cal, starts most chapters in the present, and then switches back to telling his grandparents’ and parents’ stories. The reader becomes anxious to see what’s going on in the present, and yet is forcibly taken to the past instead. This, in the best cases, builds tension by way of anticipation.

Tension, R.L. Stine Style

One BAMF.

The master of ending a chapter on a cliffhanger is the incomparable R.L. Stine.

When I was growing up, I was afraid to read out loud in class. I’d stutter, and as anyone who has tripped in front of their crush knows, once you start falling, nothing can save you from making a fool of yourself. In order to combat this, my dad suggested we read aloud to one another each night. We chose Goosebumps, naturally, because who wouldn’t. We found we’d read for longer than either of us anticipated because we just HAD TO KNOW what happened in the next chapter. If that’s not tension, keeping your readers up way past their bedtimes, then I don’t know what is.

Remember that tension doesn’t have to lay on the shoulders of your characters every time. Consider taking some of the burden from them and messing with your readers’ minds yourself!

Fire up the engine

Happy February everyone! We’ve seen a lot of great articles this month about tension. What it is, what it means and how to bring it to life. For my post, I’d like to highlight one of my favorite mechanisms for creating this delicious extended period where the reader is squirming in his or her seat. Let me introduce you to a little concept I call the Tension Engine.

The tension engine is basically a ticking clock, an escalating background situation that the heroes must deal with in addition to whatever conflict might be directly opposing them on a scene-to-scene basis. It is not the immediate problem, it is that secondary oncoming problem running underneath it all. Not as immediate as a direct conflict like a man with a gun blocking the heroes way, or a trap door suddenly opening under their feet. No, this is the problem they remember after they solve that one- -they moment where they (and the reader) say “Oh right, there is still that to deal with.” The smile drains from their faces, their recent triumph quickly forgotten. There is still much work to do.

The tension engine is often an external obstacle not created by the antagonist at all, but rather a force of nature. In the worst (or best) cases, it is not even resolvable. It is a train coming down the tracks at our heroes and it doesn’t care whether they move or not. 

A good friend of mine created one of these in one of her stories, bringing me to notice the concept for the first time. The main heroes had taken on an automaton of sorts as they struggled to escape the villains through a moving train. The automaton was loyal to them at first, but quickly it became apparent something was wrong. It was growing more violent with each encounter they had with their foes, and it was obvious at some point it would become uncontrollable. Without this ally, they had no hope of defeating their enemies, but staying with it seemed to be risking death.

I found this brilliant, and began to look for other examples of this concept in popular fiction.Not surprisingly I found it everywhere. The tension engine is the bomb that cannot be defused, forcing our hero(es) to recklessly try to escape to a safe distance. It is the fast acting virus that cannot be cured, its victim perhaps privy to key information that the heroes must extract before he expires. It thrums along in the coming storm, an onrushing cloud of nature’s violence that cares not for the conflicts of the humans below it.

The tension engine is a great tool to fire off in your story early, keeping things from ever feeling too calm, too safe. No matter what problems your characters might solve or victories they might achieve, the engine still runs like an unstoppable machine- -keeping your heroes nervous and your reader interested.

Developing Tension Over Time

When I think about how to develop tension in a story, I think of the stories I’ve read that create a sense of anticipation in the resolution of a story element. Tension can be raw and primal, like the tension between the great white whale and Captain Ahab, or it can be subtle and somber, like the tension in “Flowers for Algernon.” There are many kinds of tension an author can employ, but for any of them to work, the tension must be compelling. And what makes tension compelling is consequence. When the story element is resolved, the character or characters involved must cross some line, and their lives should be forever altered. For better or worse, there is no turning back.

It is the anticipation of the consequence that drives the tension. If you want to create truly compelling tension, you have to make the consequences clear, and make them matter to the character or characters involved. The more characters involved, and the more severe the consequences, the higher the tension can be driven.

A good story will have multiple, simultaneous narratives, each with its own conflict and tension. Just as plot lines should intersect and diverge, tension also should rise and fall. A story should have a rhythm, a cadence, a variation of pacing that gives the reader a chance to absorb the story and increase the anticipation of the final climax.

Foreshadowing is one way to promote the anticipation necessary to create compelling tension in a story. But if you want to really push your tension to maximum levels, you should have the resolution of minor tension create new and more powerful consequences for the major tension you are developing. Ideally all of the tension should eventually coalesce into the final, dramatic resolution of the major conflict of the story, delivering all the resolution the reader has been hoping for, and tying the entire story together.

That all takes careful planning. It’s harder to do if you are a “seat of the pants” writer, than if you work from firm outlines and stick to them. When I am editing my stories, I look for any opportunity to adjust story elements to weave the plot more tightly. I do the same for tension, tweaking scenes and tying elements together so that every scene contributes something to the major elements of tension, driving the story to the ultimate conclusion where that tension is finally released.

Adding Sexual Tension

First off, everyone here at The Fictorians wishes you a Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sexual tension can always be expected in any romance or erotica story, but it can always work as a major or subordinate plot point for your speculative fiction work. While the ideas I point out here are not specific to any genre, they can be used in any work to spice things up.

So what exactly is sexual tension? It’s not people and/or aliens going at it like Captain Kirk and the green-skinned Orion woman. It’s everything that happens before the sexual act. Unfortunately, people don’t really think about some of the details that go into an attraction, especially since we tend to be blind to it.

First Contact Protocol

The sexual tension was overwhelming Kirk…

When two individuals meet, there has to be some kind of signals sent and received that they find each other at least interesting. This is that “chemistry” thing movies and OKCupid accounts always go on about. Sometimes we don’t even realize this is happening. Our brains flip a few switches associated with that person and puts it in the “this other person is someone I’m interested in learning more about” section of your memory.

To really get this across to the reader, you need to show some signs using all of the senses. In addition, using a point-of-view that allows poking around inside someone’s thoughts will go a long way. Have them meet each other’s gaze, which is extremely overused so make the situation unique. Maybe she smells something that makes her think of her first love, and it turns out it is the natural musk of a female Sklorr from Bernard’s Star. Perhaps a man is working on a widget in the engine room and hears someone singing lightly to themselves in three-part harmony, only for him to discover it is a Gnork from Vega, which happens to be a gender-neutral species. Maybe two characters from different worlds bump into each other in the cantina and all they can think about is the feeling of feathers and scales brushing against each other. Get as much in there as you can, but spread it out a bit so you don’t fall into the laundry list problem.

For many guys (and some gals), there is a “checking out the other character” moment. The other one may not even realize it, but there is certainly some ogling and appreciation for the form and figure. They have a strong visual mode tied to their sexual sensory input for their brains. This can be utilized to show at least one has some interest in the other character(s).

Go To Jail, Do Not Pass Go

Since we’re trying to ramp up the sexual tension, the characters cannot decide they like each other and start banging away against the main engine, although that worked great for Kaylee in Firefly. There has to be good reasons why they could never be together. It could be position — no, not that position, I mean one could be an officer and one enlisted. Maybe there’s a taboo against being with that Sklorr… “I heard they eat their mates after they’re done.” One man may be on his way to Jupiter to start a new job as a special investigator while the Gnork from Vega is a jewel thief wanted in three planetary systems. There are plenty of options available to you, but make certain it is a good, logical reason.

Because they are definitely interested in each other in a romantic way, being forced apart will make them constantly think about each other, sometimes focusing on the little details. When we are smitten, we tend to experience everything our romantic other does as a performance. We note how one corner of their mouth doesn’t curl up as much as the other when they smile, or how the tone of their laughter makes our hearts flutter (especially during Valentine’s Day!)

Frustration and Calamity

It’s important that things keep getting in the way of the characters pursuing each other. If they were so close to each other that they can smell each other’s toothpaste, have someone (such as the comic relief character) stumble into the room just microseconds before their lips were going to touch. Have the Sklorr set up a nice date with her human girlfriend, only to have the transport tube break down on the way to the restaurant. The human will be angry and wonder if her date stood her up, while the Sklorr will be frustrated that her romantic date she planned out in detail was ruined because of a tiny component she forgot to replace when she worked on the tube system this morning.

By keeping them apart when they’re so desperate to be together, we create lots of sexual tension. The reader is wondering every time the two characters are in a scene together if they’ll finally get to that all-important first kiss. You want to keep the audience guessing until late into the middle section of the novel. But will they go further? You can fill in those details at the (ahem) climax of the manuscript.


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.