Raising Tension Through 13 Threats
As I have been working on my new mystery series, beginning with The Bishop's Wife, I've
thought considerably about how a writer raises tension in different ways throughout a novel.
Mysteries are in some way easy to write because there is a backbone of plot pre-set into the form:
1. A murder will take place.
2. A detective of some kind will investigate the murder.
3. The murder will be solved.
Of course, #2 above is the lengthiest portion of the story. A writer can do many different kinds of
things with a mystery. Some mysteries read more like light, humorous froth. Some are
meditations on humanity and the nature of evil. Others are sketches of a world the reader may
have never seen before. And yet others are dark, simmering descriptions of a crime world that we
hope isn't real.
For me, mystery is a chance to explore a community. I did not plan the plot of my first mystery
carefully. I'm often a pantser, someone who discovers the plot along the way. In fact, if it won't
be too horrible for me to reveal my secrets, I write the first half to two-thirds of my mysteries
without knowing who the murderer is. I think this is part of the reason that my readers tend to be
surprised about the plot twists and turns and particularly about the ending.
I've read a number of reviews of The Bishop's Wife, and whatever the readers' feelings are about
my depiction of Mormonism (some think it's simply boring or crazy, others think I'm too liberal
in my Mormonism), I haven't met a reviewer yet who guessed the ending before it came. How
could they? I didn't tip my hand to the reader early in the novel because I didn't have any hand to
tip. I write relying on my subconscious to feed me clues that I'm not aware of. And then, of
course, there is revision.
And revision is when I've had a chance to really craft the tension in the plot. Surprisingly, one of
the first things my editor asked me to do before she bought the manuscript was to slow the plot
down in the early parts of the manuscript. Or rather, to vary the tension more. It can be tempting
when you are writing any kind of book to really focus on the most obvious sort of tension. This is
In a fantasy, you may be tempted to keep all the tension on the level of magical revelations. In
science fiction, you may write all your scenes so that they lead gradually to a shocking new
scientific fact. In thrillers, you write about the ticking time bomb that's going to go off and kill
every single president of every country in the universe. Or a nuclear bomb in the middle of New
York City. In a romance, writers are tempted to ratchet up the emotional stakes between the hero
and the heroine, and you sometimes end up with a soap-opera-like story where they run hot and
cold, back and forth, because there's no other tension at hand.
If you are writing a story and it isn't very long or if you feel like you end up rewriting the same or
similar scenes over and over again, you may not be using a wide enough variety of tension to
hold your readers. The reality is, readers want to laugh and cry. They want to feel all kinds of
emotions when they read a book. They want you to surprise them. They want to be betrayed in
exactly the same way that the protagonist is. And the way to do that is to make sure that you use
all kinds of tension.
I don't mean to suggest that the following are the only kinds of tension available, but I think they
are sufficient to write pretty much any genre you want. You'll have to decide for yourself how
much of one to use and how much of another. I'm not saying you switch off chapter by chapter,
but there should be a rising sense of tension of one kind, interrupted briefly by another kind of
tension, and then back to the first tension. It often works well if you have two main kinds of
tension at work, and a secondary tension or possibly a tertiary one, as well. Often, writers will
use family/friends as a secondary kind of tension in sf/f or mystery. But in romance, the
relationship tension takes front scene and the more physical kinds of tension are usually the
secondary draw and focus.
These are threats to:
1. Physical harm to the protagonist
This is an obvious one. A threat to the protagonist physically, either death by holding a gun to his
head, or a moment when the protagonist has to choose whether to jump across the chasm to get
to the next goal -- it's pretty much the same thing. There is nothing wrong with using this
obvious threat, but just be aware that if you want to ratchet up tension, you can't start with a gun
to the head and then keep waving it around. You have to do something else. You have to do
something else. So maybe start with a punch to the stomach or the arms and legs and move to the
head or chest from there.
Threaten freedom of space by putting the protagonist in a jail cell, or on a deserted island.
Threaten other freedoms in a dystopian world, where the protagonist isn't allowed to choose
whom to date or whom to love or what career to choose. Threaten freedom of speech, freedom of
assembly, but do it in creative ways. You can make sure that the protagonist is proscribed in
multiple ways. The government can threaten some freedoms, but bad choices can also threaten
freedom. If you end up in jail because of your gambling habits, whose fault is that? And one
threat can often lead to another.
As with the first threat, this one can be exerted against the protagonist or any other character,
though someone close to the protagonist will have the most effect on that character, and by
extension, on the reader. Remember, as a writer, you want to make your reader feel. When your
reader closes the last page, it should feel like s/he has been in a race. Sweat should be soaking
clothes and hearts should be racing. The reader should feel exhausted. Don't let the reader escape
without feeling threat, too.
3. Larger physical harm to a group the protagonist cares about -- often with explosions, etc.
Putting a group in jeopardy is something you see all the time in movie plots and in thrillers. It
also works in fantasy and science fiction. You've got Dr. Who's season enders putting the entire
universe at risk every year (which I tire of, but I digress). The point is that more people at risk
means more tension. Right? Well, there is some risk here as a writer that a big group of people
who haven't been shown as individuals or as a group to be valuable or sympathetic may end up
feeling like a gesture rather than a real threat. So be careful with that. But if it's a group your
protagonist knows and cares about, this works much better. Be sure to make the protagonist the
one who makes it clear to the reader why this group being killed would really be bad, what the
effect would be on the future and on the protagonist personally.
4. Exposure of a past secret
This is a lot different than the previous three threats in that it's something that is less tangible. In
medieval plots, this often ends up being about "honor." In political thrillers, it can end up feeling
like it's about "reputation" or about "likeability" for voters. Presumably, the past secret is going
to be pretty bad. Killing babies or sleeping with a sister, something along those lines. But you
could also go for something that the protagonist thinks is terrible, but the reader doesn't
necessarily agree with. That tells us a lot about the protagonist. Be careful that you don't ruin the
reader's sympathy for the protagonist by revealing something too terrible, or that you make sure
that the protagonist has changed dramatically. It could also be a secret that appears bad, but isn't
really. Or something that the protagonist took responsibility for, even though it was someone
else's deed that was more terrible.
5. Family or marriage or other relationships
This is the threat I probably use most frequently, in every kind of fiction that I write. It's simply
because it humanizes the protagonist the most to see how important relationships are. Siblings,
parents, a spouse, children, or even just a friend. Put the relationship in jeopardy, not just the life
of the person. You don't have to do this by using an ultimatum (i.e. you stop investigating this
crime or I'm divorcing you), but that's one way to do it. Sometimes it's just the realization that
heading down this path will inevitably lead to losses of another kind. Sometimes it is a
face-to-face showdown where a choice has to be made between helping a friend and doing
6. Harm to a child -- even a random one
OK, this can be really cheesy, so use with care. I think it works best if the protagonist has some
relationship to the child, or imagines the child is standing in for someone the protagonist actually
knows. But let's face it, we Americans are suckers for politicians who kiss babies. "For the
children" is a campaign slogan that how many politicians or political causes have used to win
votes? When an evil villain targets children, you almost don't have to do anything else as a writer
to make readers care.
7. Ruining an ideal or an organization the protagonist values
This is more subtle than physical harm to a group of people. If a club is threatened or a religious
organization that has been previously shown to matter, your protagonist is going to react.
Sometimes it can be something as intangible as an ideal that is threatened, though. If you're
writing science fiction, will your protagonist help create order on a planet if the cost is the loss of
any memory of earth? Or if it's a thriller, is it all right if the nuclear bomb is stopped if an
innocent group is blamed?
8. Status quo
Sometimes the only thing that is threatened is the status quo. There have been beautiful books
written that are about the threat of the change that happens naturally with the march of time to the
status quo. You have to write poetically enough about the world as it is to make the reader care
that this will end. And you have to make your protagonist care deeply about the status quo. What
stakes does he have in the past? What does he love more than himself? Is it an ideal? Is it some
object that represents this ideal?
9. Psychological or emotional harm
This can be a threat for any character or even a group, but for the protagonists, sometimes a
psychological threat is more poignant than a physical one. An artist, for instance, could be ruined
for art if her creativity is no longer possible. A sensitive person might be as good as dead if
emotionally harmed. What if someone is already on the fringes, or is handicapped in some way?
What happens if you put that person in further danger?
10. Money, home, objects of value
Blow things up, and you immediately get the attention of many readers. Just beware of doing this
too much. If you use it in the beginning of the book, you can't keep using it. And be creative. It's
more interesting if you tell us a story about an object that is going to be threatened. Tell me about
the Stradivarius violin and why it's the only thing of its kind that remains. Tell me about the
photograph of a grandparent in black and white and why it matters. Tell me about the Persian rug
passed down from generation to generation or the first edition copy of Sherlock Holmes. What is
threatened is always going to have more power if the protagonist has a history with it.
11. Future stories of the protagonist or someone else valued by protagonist
This is more intangible again, but it can be very effective. If you threaten not the present day
status quo and not the reputation of something that matters now, but the future and how that
future will look back on the present, a protagonist can be very moved by that. Or can choose not
to worry about it, and do what is right, no matter what the future thinks. Either one tells us a lot
about the protagonist and it makes us care about the choice. That's what readers want to do. They
want to keep reading because they ache for the choice that has to be made. If there isn't anything
left to be lost that matters, well, readers are going to tend to close the book.
12. Torture or pain
The Princess Bride uses torture brilliantly as a threat and as a way of changing the tension from
the threat of the wrong wedding to the threat of Wesley's pain. And there's humor, as well! But
again, I recommend a light hand here. Describing torture in detail is often less effective than
beginning and then leaving the rest to the reader's imagination. There are a couple of TV shows
(24 among them) which I can't watch anymore because I just can't stand to see torture. It may be
real, and it may be something that exists in our world. But I'm not going to pretend it's
13. President or political/religious leader, which is essentially threat to the good
I've seen stories where the protagonist has a grudge against the president but has to save him
anyway. Because, well, he's the president. He represents order and the Constitution and the
United States itself. You can also play with a choice between saving the life of the president or
saving the lives of hundreds of others. Which matters more? This really isn't about one person's
life. It's about order. Order matters to humans. Preserving order saves lives, but it can feel like
it's too abstract to care about. Again, this is about balancing tension. So you can go back and
forth between other threats and this one and the reader will feel gripped by both and not tired by
If you figure out what the theme of your book is, then you can weave that into the different
threats that you choose. If your theme is about corruption, you're going to choose to emphasize
different moments than if your theme is family and love. It's up to you, but don't be so
short-sighted that you forget that you can grab your reader in lots of different ways and keep
them tense from one moment to the next without it feeling like overkill or without your reader
getting bored of too much of the same thing.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison