First, what’s the difference between tension and suspense? My source is Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction by Michael Klaasen (This is a good book worth reading.). Tension occurs when a reader’s anxiety kicks in due to the reader’s uncertainty that a character will overcome an obstacle. Suspense is this tension and uncertainty of a character’s success in achieving their objective over time.
The current political climate in the United States is fraught with tension and suspense. I’m sure it’s the same elsewhere, but I can only report on what’s happening here. Using the current US-China trade war and the stock market as examples, tension has been created with the imposition of tariffs and the threats of retaliation. As I write this, it’s midday East Coast time, and the market has tumbled 706 points since it opened this morning.
If the character’s goal is not to lose her ailing aunt’s money, will she be able to sell off the stocks before the closing bell? She’s on a mobile phone in a limited coverage area. Can she reach her broker in time? In this situation, the first obstacle, the source of the reader’s uncertainty, is finding a location where the cellphone works. Tension.
The suspense kicks in when she tries one location with no success. The second is fruitless, but the third gives her the necessary connection to her broker. Reaching him, she starts to speak. He puts her on hold. Another obstacle. Another opportunity for tension and suspense.
For those of us who watch or have stocks in the US market, our suspense is how far will it fall before it screeches to a halt. Needless to say, our media pundits will intensify the hype, create more uncertainty until some resolution occurs. Then they’ll say “see, I told you so” or words to that effect.
We can learn from the media “hypesters.” They pile on the uncertainty in our minds, which is what we need to do with our stories.
As I work my own stories and critique others, tension and suspense are in the forefront of my mind. I’ll write something and then read it later and it falls flat. My emotional radar isn’t picking up a sense of uncertainty. A technique I’ve learned is the “Power of Minimum Five.” To create uncertainty, I establish the character’s obstacle. Next, I list a minimum of five different solutions to overcome it. Actually, I’ll try scribble down as many as possible. They range from the most obvious to the most ludicrous. Then, I’ll mull over the last ones, the ones that came from the deepest reaches of the mind, the ones that may be far-fetched or most unusual. I’ll chose one and try it out. If it works, I let it sit in place for a bit and move on. Later, I’ll come back and read it. If the emotional radar kicks in, it’s a keeper though it may need work in the future.
Writing Exercise 1: Create an obstacle for your character. Then list a minimum of five methods for them to overcome it. Pick one and write a short scene. They don’t have to be successful in overcoming the obstacle. It might be better if they don’t. If they do, what’s the complication in their success? The idea is to show the effort of the attempt, thus creating tension in the mind of the reader.
Writing Exercise 2: Try this technique in a dialogue exchange. It’s like a debate. One character says something, the other counters it. Try to intensify each line. Think about starting out with longer sentences and as the conversation progresses, they get shorter, the words more powerful.
Just for Fun – A Writing Prompt: On vacation for the first time in years, one half of a husband-and-wife crime-fighting duo is trapped in an abandoned gold mine.
If you have techniques you find useful in creating tension, please share them in the comments. Have a great writing week.
Today’s post comes from Larry Keeton, a group leader in the Inked Voices writing group The General Store. Larry posts thought exercises and prompts to The General Store each Monday. We’re enjoying them so much that we will be occasionally posting them to the blog. Thank you, Larry!