It’s Getting Tense in Here by Amber Royer
by Writing Workshops Staff
A year ago
I’m about to release my first cozy mystery, and I thought I’d celebrate with a blog post on tension, which is important to all novels – but especially so in a mystery.
Think of tension like a giant rubber band. You have two opposing forces in your story, your protagonist and the antagonist/antagonistic force. Those two need to be pulling against each other, like two people pulling at the edges of that rubber band, keeping it taught and stretching it farther apart. You can’t have one of them give up and get distracted, or the rubber band goes slack, or snaps all over the place. Which means that you’ve either bored your reader – or thrown them completely out of the story. Any time your rubber band goes wobbly, readers are going to feel it. But it is hard to have that main source of tension showing up full force in every scene. So what is a writer to do?
If you introduce other sources of tension, you shore up the story, like adding in extra people with connected rubber bands to keep things tight.
For example, in Grand Openings Can Be Murder, having my protagonist uncover the identity of the murderer is obviously the main source of tension. But there are pages in the book where the murder hasn’t happened yet, and there are parts where Felicity isn’t actively investigating. In order to keep things interesting, I introduced tension between Felicity and a blogger, who is implying – just vaguely enough to avoid trouble – the Felicity should be a suspect in the case. I also gave her two potential love interests – always a great source of tension and uncertainty – and a match-making aunt who loves Felicity and keeps pushing her out of her comfort zone. And of course, there’s the threat to her business, which she has to keep running despite everything else going on, and an additional threat from the weather as a hurricane rolls into the Gulf and heads towards her island. Whenever there’s a quiet moment in the main investigation, all I have to do is pull on one of these other bands, and the reader’s interest is then maintained.
Make sure that all of your story’s elements feel connected into one whole piece, and that you have one main band that is the crux of the plot. Otherwise, when you pull on one band, it’s not going to shore up the others. Rather, it will feel like there are multiple stories going on competing for the reader’s attention. This is unsatisfying and can cause a reader to abandon your story.
Tension comes from uncertainty, and the anxiety it provokes. A writer’s job is to introduce a character and get the reader attached to her, by showing her in action dealing with an initial version of the problem that is the main rubber band. If we don’t care about your character, we as readers can’t feel the proper anxiety, no matter what kind of physical/emotional/moral danger you put her in. But once we are attached, our anxiety over what will happen next, and about the character’s fate will keep us up reading, because we just HAVE to know the outcome.
Even if we think we know what the plot is leading us towards, we still need a source of uncertainty to maintain our interest. Which means that you have to keep the reader guessing HOW you will unravel things, even if your genre implies a certain type of ending. (In a mystery, the baddie will be brought to justice, in a romance, the two lovers will wind up together, etc.) This means there need to be some twists to the plot that make it seem improbable that the desired outcome will happen. And we need to see your characters overcome challenges in unexpected ways.
More than anything, keep your characters moving forwards. Active characters fighting towards a goal are always going to be more interesting than a passive character just letting the plot wash over him. Let the reader feel a sense that the character is making progress through the plot, and in his personal arc. Don’t get bogged down in large swathes of backstory, or frequent flashbacks. If you wait for us to be hungry for the information before you reveal specific details of a character’s past or a situation’s history, you’ll not only avoid infodumping, you’ll make that information feel like a plot twist or revelation moment.
Tension ends when our need to know is satisfied. So as each rubber band in your story is introduced, it also needs a conclusion that satisfies the reader about that band of the plot. You can often use a first-in last out approach, resolving the bands in the reverse order to how they were introduced, which will help reinforce which sources of tension are most important to the story. Things don’t have to be definitively resolved, but they do need a satisfying for-now resolution.
For example, Grand Openings Can Be Murder is the first book in a series. Felicity’s main personal arc deals with overcoming grief and starting to move forward again. But it isn’t like that grief is going to just go away. She may have made strides towards coping with it, but it will still be an element in the second book.
Once tension is released and the reader’s curiosity and anxiety have been satisfied, end the story without dragging out the resolution.
Instructor Amber Royer is the author of The Chocoverse Science Fiction Series and The Bean to Bar Mysteries. Amber likes to tell stories that involve complex characters caught up in sticky situations larger than themselves, with no easy answers in sight. If you’re looking for flawed romantic leads, danger and adventure, and optimistic multicultural themes, you’ll love Amber's work.