Ramping up the Tension in our Fiction

Have you read Little Women?

I have a tear-stained unabridged hardcover edition I purchased for $10 when I was a teen. That $10 was several weeks’ worth of allowance money, but it was worth it to me. I loved the story and read it many times through the years.

Little Women is a classic, but I doubt it would interest an editor today. Why? Because it lacks the tension and conflict modern readers crave.

Many of us are no longer content to immerse ourselves in babbling brook stories. We want swiftly flowing rivers–complete with whitewater rapids and death-defying drops.

When I began writing I hadn’t learned this important lesson. As a result my stories lacked the conflict and tension needed to gain a reader’s attention.

But that’s changed.

I’ve learned that readers need a reason to keep turning the pages, and it’s my job as the writer to provide it. To do so, I need three things.

Hooks that pull a reader into the story.

Yes, I said hooks. Each scene has to capture a reader’s attention. Beautifully written descriptive passages won’t do it. Something has to be happening, which is why many scenes drop a reader in the middle of the action.

Conflict strong enough to keep the characters apart.

When I began writing my first romance, I didn’t understand what makes a story work. I had the notion after having read hundreds of romances that I could do something no one had done before. I could tell a story of a couple who fell in love and got together early on instead of in the final pages.

I’d felt the pain of one fictional couple after another being kept apart for hundreds of pages and was ready for a story in which the hero and heroine got along and enjoyed being together. OK, laugh if you want. Call me naive, but that’s what I, in my fluorescent green newbie days, thought would work. How wrong I was. It took a while for me to see how boring such a story would be.

Read-on Prompts (ROPs) that keep a reader turning pages.

The ending of a scene is as important as the beginning when it comes to keeping a reader’s attention. We want a reader to turn those pages, eager to read “just one more chapter.” To do this, we need to use read-on prompts, those catchy scene endings that leave a reader with a question she has to have answered: “What happens next?”

• • •

What are some stories you’ve read recently where the author keeps the tension high?

What techniques do you use to keep the tension ramped up in your stories?

Did you ever think, as I did, that a story without tension was the ticket?

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Whitewater photo is from the National Park Service and is in the public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)
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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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18 Responses to Ramping up the Tension in our Fiction

  1. No, I’ve never thought about a story without tension, but that’s because I never broke stories down. I’m not analytical. I’m learning to be though, or at least try. I loved, loved Little Women. 🙂

  2. Tamika Eason says:

    I feel the same about The Secret Garden- a classic that I wil always cherish. Today I know it wouldn’t receive the same acclaim.

    I love the tension in books like, “Words” by Ginny Yttrup.

  3. I’ve never read Little Women! I know – horrible!

    I’m all about tension. In fact, one of the things I had to work through on the content edits of my debut novel was toning down the tension between my hero and heroine. Ooops!

  4. I loved Little Women. You know for it not being what an editor would want, a whole lot of us in today’s white water rafting world still love it…hmmmm…. 🙂

    When I’m nearing a scene I try to break it off before it’s done or leave it cliff hanging with dialogue or some kind of foreshadowing, but I don’t concentrate too hard on it until revisions. The first draft, I just jump in, fall in love and write it as it comes. Sometimes I do a pretty good job leaving it for the page to be turned, sometimes I have to work harder during edits.

  5. Loree Huebner says:

    All great points, Keli. Tension is a huge key for me.

    I love Little Women! The first time I read the story, it was in one of those Reader’s Digest condensed books when I was young. The novel was one of the first books that I bought for each of my daughters. I read it again and again with them as they grew up.

  6. The last story I read with tension, curves, and crashing rapids was Shelter, by Harlan Coben. A favorite mystery/thriller writer of mine, this new venture is a cross over for YA and adults. His amazing talents at keeping me glued to the chair, means when I start one of his books, I can’t stop until I’m finished.

    Genre more than just the current pallet of readers also determinds tension, how much, which kind and the push and pull of a couple who may be destined to come together at The End, is more fun than affect. In the second of a trilogy, I deliberately pulled the young couple apart to keep the quess work moving. Like one of my favorite TV series, Bones, the two might show they are in love, have a couple of magical moments where you were certain “this is it” but in the end it took six seasons for them to find their way to each other.

    Not to disparage the current trends, I still love the classics where rambling prose and soft melodies soothed me. As always, Keli you bring forth a thoughtful idea and leave us holding the “hook.” Tahnks 🙂

  7. the writ and the wrote says:

    Hooks and tension are so important. I find that most classics don’t have the things that keep us reading. Have you ever met anyone who said I started reading A Tale of Two Cities and couldn’t put it down? No. It lacks the excitement and adventure we want. I’m reading The Warrior King by Wendy Murray right now, and while it’s about the Maya people, it’s also a love story and has kept me guessing all the way through.

    • Oh, how sad that you have never delighted in the wonderful tales of Charles Dickens. You hit on one I truly loved. Goodness, I can see Madame Lafarge knitting in the names of the aristocracy they will behead in the revolution as she sits in front of her shop every day.

      Classics are the foundation for all good genre writing, as classical music is the basis for good jazz and rock music. Please do not think I am preaching, but do you really believe that one hundred years from now some of the genre books being printed today will still be cherished and loved. Try another style of classic like Tolkien or EB White. Well try 🙂

  8. Marji Laine says:

    I was so excited when I saw your post title pop up on my blog. This is exactly where I worked last night, developing a set of hooks that would keep the energy and intensity high in my story. Your article has perfect timing!

  9. cynthiaherron says:

    Keli, I adored Little Women! And I always watch the old classic (with June Allison) when it comes on TCM, and I don’t watch much television so that’s saying something for me.

    I’m careful to leave little (and sometimes big) ROPs at the end of my chapters/scenes. Even in my newbie days, I somehow knew innately to do this. What I REALLY had to work on was backstory/description. Yearrrs ago, I once described a sunset (in a single manuscript) about 10 different ways. That manuscript will never see the light of day, of course! 😉

  10. Good tips to remember, Keli. ROPs really do make you want to stay up an extra hour just to see what happens next. And I like stories that keep the characters apart with conflict, but still have plenty of romantic tension. It makes the ending when they FINALLY get together all the more rewarding.

    Haven’t read Little Women in years. I downloaded it to my Kindle a few months ago. That may be on my list of winter reading.

  11. Mary Connealy and I were discussing tension in fiction and ramping up conflict. Of course her solution to dwindling conflict is to shoot one of her characters. They don’t have to die, but there does need to be a little firearms mayhem to keep folks interested. 🙂

  12. i SO did the “they are going to get together EARLY” thing too! how funny! but the more i read, the more i realize it’s the tension of not getting together that makes me keep reading. 🙂

  13. Great post, Keli! Since I don’t like tension in real life, I had to learn that there really MUST be some tension in stories, LOL. As a writer, I just didn’t want my characters to experience anything too harsh. Well, I’ve learned a lot, needless to say. And although it still makes me grimace to put my characters (at least the nice ones, teehee) through rough times, I know it’s necessary. ~ And Little Women is a classic that’s always held a special place in my heart….in fact, that’s one reason my firstborn is named Amy. 🙂

  14. First let me say how much I loved Little Women and Little Men and I though there was conflict there because I wanted Jo to get with Laurie and when here sister did and the other died,oh, it held my attention.
    But yes I see the need to keep the reader turning the pages. Who wants to write a boring story??

  15. Wendy says:

    Love whitewater rafting. LOVE it! My first novel fell flat when it came to tension. I bought into the whole…but it’s a journey, an emotional experience. Tee hee. Funny to look back. Glad I’ve grown.
    ~ Wendy

  16. Marji Laine says:

    Keli,
    I wanted to let you know that I’ve given your blog a new award! Your posts are so encouraging to me and I couldn’t resist sharing this with you. You can learn more about it at http://marjilaine.blogspot.com/2011/10/yummy-new-blog-award.html

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