Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
September 2014

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 a mistake.

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.

2. Freedom

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 something greater.

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 entertainment.

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 the combination.

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

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