The first list of emotions equates the last. When writing, you attempt to create emotion, yes? Well, one of the most powerful emotions that connects your reader to the story and keeps them turning pages is tension.
It’s also one of the hardest to create, sometimes.
So today, I’d late to take a look at the six emotions that, when “shaken well”, blend into the tension we’re all chasing after.
The tension that keeps us reading.
One Part Dread
One of the most important parts of tension is the relative power of your main character and your villain.
An all-powerful hero has nothing to fear from a villain. Not even when the villain is similarly powered. When your MC is immortal and has no weakness, your reader will never feel tension.
Your reader should always be in doubt about the hero’s survival. There’s been so many times where the author has attempted to create tension but failed because there’s no doubt that the hero will survive.
That’s not good.
The key to creating dread – and a portion of tension – is keeping your reader wondering. When your main character might not make it, we feel dread.
A simple promise: the main character doesn’t need to survive.
Suddenly your reader doesn’t know anymore. They can’t put the book down because what if evil wins. We can’t stand that thought, can we? It makes us shiver and shake our head.
One of the stumbling blocks to true dread is perspective. When you write in first person limited, it becomes near-impossible to create the dread of death. Because the main character can’t die, can they? We’re sitting in their head, and when they die, the story’s over. So they can’t die till the last page.
It’s a difficulty that’s hard to overcome. Whereas a third person perspective makes it so much easier to create that dread. Because if one character dies, you can just head-hop to the next character.
There are three ways to create this dread:
-Keep your promises. When you hint at something bad to come, make something bad come. But not just anything bad, we want worse. Far worse. Then we’ll trust you when you hint at the idea that the hero could die. Doesn’t mean they will. But they could.
-Make your villain stronger. The scales should always balance against the hero, until the very end. So as you write, show that your villain is so much more powerful than your hero. There are so many ways to do this, I don’t think I need to explain this more.
-Set examples. While I don’t support or condone senseless killing of characters, one of the easiest ways to create dread is to show that others aren’t exempt. If your villain never kills, hurts, or even “captures” others, we won’t believe that they can kill or hurt or break your hero.
Two Parts Fear
Your hero can’t be fearless. Perfectly brave heroes kill dread. The idea of fear in novels really deserves its own blog post, which I plan to do, someday, but until then, here are two tips:
-Give your hero real fears. Don’t just assign him or her a cool phobia, but give them a fear that means something. There should be sound reasoning and backstory behind the fear, not a random generator.
-Make your villain fear-inspiring. The thing we should fear the most is the villain. Yes, the hero can fear something simple- heights, spiders, small spaces, etc. but they should also fear the villain.
One Part Frustration
This one needs less time than the others, but it’s still important. When your hero wins all the time, there is no dread. We can’t “pretend” that your hero might lose the important battle when they haven’t lost a single battle yet.
So frustrate your hero. Not like… perturb them, but make them lose. Frustrate their plans in the old-fashioned meaning of the word.
When you hero loses, it shows that they’re only human (or elvish or whatever race they are). The more defeats they face, the higher the dread and the higher the chance we’ll believe it. Whenever your hero wins, they have to suffer two defeats. A 2:1 ratio keeps your reader from scoffing when you try to entice us with dread.
Frustration – though minor in the recipe of Dread – is important to conflict and emotion.
One Part Anger
Everybody gets angry. Even heroes who are supposed to embody the idea of Peace. Anger can come in a number of ways: anger at the villain, at the Allies, the Mentor, the weather, even at oneself. When the hero gets angry, it shows their humanity. And when their anger shows the power of the other side, we begin to fear. We fear for the survival of the hero.
Two Parts Loneliness
You’ll notice in a lot of movies that the hero often ends up facing the villain alone. In the first Harry Potter book/movie, Harry sets off with his friends, but by the final climax he’s alone. Frodo starts off to the mountain with eight friends, and makes it to the mount with one. Rand al’Thor starts with an army, but must enter Thakan’dar alone to face the Dark One. Captain America leads hundreds of soldiers to defeat HYDRA, but he must finish the fight alone, and pay the price for it.
When your hero has friends, he has hope. Hope is good. Everyone needs hope. But hope and dread are opposites. Before you can create dread, you must remove hope. The easiest way to remove hope is to remove friends, because friends provide hope.
Without a sense of loneliness, there is no sense of dread.
However, there are ways to create loneliness in the midst of a crowd. Your hero can have dozens of friends or soldiers around them to protect and aid, but still feel alone.
Create ostracism. Is your hero truly one of them? Is he or she really part of the “team”? If they feel like an outsider, even when they aren’t, it makes them feel alone.
Create friction. When your hero disagrees with others, when others value other things, it creates tense friction and division. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” And your hero is alone.
One Part Powerlessness
When the climax comes, when the villain stands over all, when the dread should be at its worst, the hero should be powerless. There should be nothing your hero can do, at first.
Yes, your hero should win. But to the very moment that they do, there should be nothing more than a stomped-out glimmer of hope.
The Last Part
When you’ve done this, when you’ve created a mixture of one part dread, two parts fear, one part frustration, one part anger, two parts loneliness, and one part powerlessness, you’ll have a result of tension.
What do you do with this tension?
And how does it apply to your prose?
Simple: tension should leak through every word. Don’t use relaxed words in tense scenes. Tension affects description, thoughts, actions, dialogue, and narrative. When a character is tense, they’re alert. They see more, hear more, smell more, etc. They can react to the slightest input.
Every word counts.
Every sentence counts.
Your style can change, when there is tension. You can go from long, descriptive sentences to shorter, choppier sentences.
Single word sentences, single sentence paragraphs, quick descriptions, quick action, all of it. As tension builds, you’ll feel it as you write. When you feel tense, you’ve found a start. Your tension isn’t the true tension, however, because not all of the tension you feel when you write will bleed through to the page.
But it’s a start.
It's okay to be Afraid... (Sarah Elizabeth)