Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Creating Tension

James 5:13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

Creating Tension
Guest Author: Steven Brandt

Okay, how many times has this happened to you: You start reading a book that sounded really good to you, but halfway through, it gets boring and you give up on it.  Most of us have experienced that frustration, and probably more than once.  Why does it happen?  Well, obviously, the author didn’t keep us interested.

So what can you, as an author, do to keep your readers interested?  You add some tension!  Turn up the heat a little!  Tension creates an air of suspense, and suspense is what keeps readers turning pages.

There are lots of little ways you can create tension in a story.  Foreshadowing is a good one.  Consider the following:

Mark kissed his wife good bye and left for work.  That was the last time he ever saw her.

That’s what I call "extreme foreshadowing.”  In my opinion it’s a little on the blunt side, but hey, Stephen King does it all the time, and it works.  It almost seems like that is giving away too much information, too early in the story, but is it?  Why do they never see each other again?  Does one of them die?  Does she pack her things and leave while he’s gone?  There are lots of things that can happen here, and the reader will be dying to know more.

Since Stephen King is my favorite author, let’s talk about him a little more.  It seems to me that King’s favorite method of creating tension is using the weather.  He just loves to put storms in his stories.  Take "Bag of Bones" for example.  As we begin to approach the climax of this story, the main character sees thunderheads building on the horizon.  The storm clouds slowly come closer and closer, then thunder begins to rumble.  We know the storm is going to hit, and it's going to be a big one.  The plot reaches its crescendo just as the storm breaks.  Thunderclaps seem to echo the gunshots as one of the main characters is brutally gunned down.  King does this better than anyone else I’ve read.  The approaching storm is an excellent way to create tension in a story.

It doesn’t have to be a thunderstorm, though.  King has also used snow storms in several of his stories, most notably "The Shining."  Jack, Wendy, and Danny are the only three people at the secluded Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains.  As the snow, and Jack's dimentia, grow deeper and deeper, you just know something bad is going to happen.  Stephen King also uses snow storms in "Christine", and "Dreamcatcher" in similar fashion.

Let’s look at some other popular writers.  In Dean Koontz’s "Odd Thomas" series, the main character has a sixth sense that allows him to see the spirits of dead people.  Odd’s unusual ability also allows him to see bodocks.  Bodocks are wraith-like spirits that gather around people or places where death is imminent.  Koontz uses the bodocks the same way King uses storms.  As Odd Thomas begins to see more and more bodocks, you just know that something great and terrible is going to happen.

Storms and bodocks are great ways to increase the suspense in a story, and there are probably lots of different variations on that theme.  It doesn't have to be anything quite that grand, however.  Friction between two characters can add a lot of tension to a story.  Louis L'Amour favors this method.  Two characters start out as friends, but then maybe they argue about something.  Maybe one of them finds a bigger chunk of gold in the stream, or one of them gets a prettier girl.  In L'Amour's stories, this almost always ends in a gunfight.

These are only a few examples of how you can create tension and suspense in your story.  I really like King's storm method, and I like Koontz's bodock variation.  Give it some thought, I bet you can come up with a great method of your own.

About the author: Steven has recently gone blind and is finding joy in writing of his journey. Overcoming many obstacles he is a true inspiration to everyone who thinks that their life is horrible, or that they can't overcome anything. You can read his blog at, The Drums in the Deep. 

Thank you and God Bless


Stormcrow said...

This post just wasn't up to your usual standard, get rid of that guy!

joni said...

Never! He is a budding writer and has one of THEE best teachers right at his fingertips!

I'll keep him! :-)

Adam Zipp said...

This is all correct! If a book has no tension, whats the point in reading? plus, when you add the "Last time he ever saw her" part, and take four pages to say why, it builds...

joni said...

Wow a visit from Adam! :-)

Thanks for your input! It matters!

June said...

Excellent points and good examples!

Since I'm doing a workshop on foreshadowing starting on Sunday, it's good to see some of the same points.

Foreshadowing can be anywhere from obvious to subtle. Each has it's own purpose and use.

Using foreshadowing at the beginning of a story adds much to draw the reader into the story.

Well done!

Take care,