J is for Jacking Up the Tension
A story is about a character wanting something intensely and there is an impediment to his or her goal. The thing the character wants need not be something huge or spectacular, but the character must want whatever it is with great passion.
What we as writers want to do is to keep our readers wondering and worrying. So long as they are doing that, they are turning the pages. The easiest way of doing this is by raising story questions at the very beginning.
There’s a knock on the door – who’s on the other side?
Boy meets girl – will they like each other?
A woman believes in UFOs – will these beliefs be put to the test?
These story questions are very effective in creating tension in stories and they can be answered very quickly or they can be long-range story questions that won’t be answered until near the end of the story. The question must not only get the reader involved in the story, it should be justified by the story that follows.
Once you have established tension with your story question, you must keep it going, escalating to a final act in which the main character is changed forever.
Give your character an objective, something they must do, and then raise the stakes in order for them to reach their objective. Add an obstacle for them to overcome in order to reach their objective, a source of annoyance or an element of danger.
You can have actual danger, such as an unexploded bomb or an impending train wreck; or you can have psychological danger such as loss of a job or spouse, or even loss of honour. The trick is to make whatever the danger is something that is important to the character - give him something that would devastate him if it occurred.
Toss in a bit of information that the characters do not know at the end of each chapter. This doesn’t have to be a huge crisis, but it should be interesting enough to make the reader say "OK, just one more chapter," and turn the page.
Watch your pacing. You increase tension by shortening your words and sentences. Long sentences create a more relaxed mood, while short choppy ones make the scene more suspenseful. Don't keep things at a fever pitch, though. Your characters and readers need some downtime after an action scene. Have the mood of your story vary from suspenseful to more relaxed in order to keep the tension higher.
In today’s world, good fiction echoes life itself in that there are no clear or permanent solutions, that the conflicts of character, relationships and the universe can’t be permanently resolved. There are no more “and they lived happily ever after” kinds of stories, at least not that anyone would want to read. The story form demands a resolution of some sort but without the element of tension, the story falls flat.