How to Write a Novel, Part 3: Narrative Tension

Has a book ever consumed you? Hooked you so completely that you smuggle it to work and read surreptitiously under the desk, and stay up all night devouring chapters to find out what happens? I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in one sitting, curled in my dad’s blue armchair that matched the book’s cover. Years later, I gobbled up the Hunger Games trilogy in less than a week. What is this captivating spell stories cast? It’s called narrative tension, and every book lover has (hopefully!) been an enthusiastic victim. Narrative tension is why we turn the page. It’s an essential concept of storytelling: when characters in a story are blocked from getting what they want, they suffer. In a well-crafted novel, the reader hangs in suspense right along with them, turning page after feverish page to find out what happens.

How can we work this magic in our own stories? A novel’s events occur in a pattern that puts mounting pressure on the protagonist. Whenever they resolve one crisis, another larger one already looms over them. Harry and Cedric survive the enchanted maze…but the trophy cup whisks them off to a graveyard full of waiting Death Eaters. Katniss orchestrates Peeta’s rescue from a Capitol prison…but the enemy has brainwashed him to kill her. “Breathers” between crises get shorter as the plot accelerates toward the climax. Peaks of tension draw readers through the story like passengers on a roller coaster.

Tension Tricks

Some tried-and-true techniques for heightening tension in a story include:

  • Conflicting Goals. Give the protagonist someone to compete with or put the protagonist at odds with themselves over a goal.
  • Time Limits. Imposing a time limit or deadline on your protagonist gives a set amount of time for the goal to be reached, generating tensions as the minutes count down. Tick tock!
  • Take Away Their Toys. Reduce your protagonist’s arsenal of advantages. Steal their magical weapon, kill their mentor, lose their passport: whatever they need (or think they need) to achieve their goal, take it from them.
  • Realize Threats. Fire a “warning shot”. Make the antagonist’s threat real. This is where the kidnappers send the investigator a finger in a box: they haven’t killed the victim yet, but they’ve demonstrated the seriousness of their intentions. Give the protagonist a taste of what happens if he/she fails.
  • Reveal a traitor. Introducing a traitor or hidden rival among your protagonist’s companions hinders the protagonist’s progress towards their goal and–better yet, if you like to torment your characters–inflicts psychological damage.
  • Beat them to the punch. The opposition moves more quickly than the protagonist and gets to something first, spurring your protagonist to act quickly, either to recover what’s been lost or to come from behind. The Nazis seize the Ark before Indiana Jones does, forcing Indy into action.
  • Make it personal. Keeping the problem or danger close to the protagonist will keep him/her engaged in resolving it. If symptoms of galactic plague suddenly manifest in the protagonist’s beloved child, he or she will be a lot more motivated to find a cure.
  • Drop a bombshell. Revelations, twists, or sudden new information can ignite your plot, but this technique comes with caveats. Sudden twists must be relevant to the protagonist’s goal, and should be foreshadowed earlier in the story. Don’t show critical information in from left field and think “whoopee, what a twist!” Tease revelations in advance, otherwise they will seem contrived and readers will feel cheated.

Mood Killers

While certain devices augment tension and excitement in a story, others can bring its momentum to a grinding halt. In an era of notoriously short attention spans, many readers will put down a book that can’t keep them engaged. What makes the “most wanted” list for murdering narrative tension?

  • Backstory, poorly managed, bogs down your story. Most readers won’t still still, literally or figuratively, for history lessons. “Long ago in this land, [insert tedious paragraphs of background here] happened and threw the kingdom into turmoil”.  Info-dumps of this nature are, with few exceptions, the hallmark of amateurs. Drop hints to pique interest, then dole out information gradually in an organic, logical way. Only include background details germane to the story.
  • Telling too much too soon denies readers the suspense and satisfaction of awaiting answers. If you provide the full biography of a character or history of a situation right up front, readers have no incentive to keep turning pages. You’ve already answered all the questions! Don’t give away everything right away. Make readers work for it! Finally, a form of communication where it’s okay to be a tease.
  • Wasting time with materials that doesn’t move the story forward will prompt many readers to walk away. Devoted Song of Ice and Fire fans will doubtless excoriate me for this, but I struggled with A Dance with Dragons because many of the chapters didn’t seem to advance the story. “Okay, here’s another interlude of Tyrion cruising with the river-folk…drinkin’ ale and tellin’ tales…where is this going, exactly?” Since most of us aren’t George R. R. Martin, we can’t guarantee that people will plow though the tedious bits of our story instead of putting the book aside. Omit scenes that don’t propel the narrative or reveal character, and trim excess from dialogue and descriptions.

Creating a Storyboard

A valuable exercise for evaluating narrative flow is the storyboard. Jot a one-line description of each scene on a sticky note (or an index card, or in a spreadsheet, whatever works for you). Don’t worry about writing them in chronological order, just scribble down every scene you’ve envisioned for your story. If it helps, color-code scenes by subplot. Once you’ve accumulated a good pile, lay them out in a logical sequence of events and evaluate:

  • Does tension build towards the climax?
  • Does every scene contribute something towards the story’s momentum? Remove extraneous scenes or devise a way to make them more germane.
  • Are there any gaps in the plot? If the layout exposes holes, seeing the events on either side can prompt the development of new scenes to connect the dots.
  • Are major revelations foreshadowed?
  • If you’re using multiple points of view, which scenes will use each character’s perspective?
  • Is the story’s internal logic sound? Are all the questions resolved by the end?

Laying out the pieces like this creates a map of the story’s tension flow and allows you to switch pieces around until you find an optimal arrangement. When you’re satisfied, transcribe the storyboard into a scene-by-scene outline. Congratulations! You’ve got a complete working model of your novel. But where should it start? How do you determine the opening chapter, scene, or line of the book? We’ll explore that in next week’s installment.

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