I saw the final Harry Potter movie last week. I think I’m in mourning. I’m also still pondering the tension piece of writing, and how important it is. Put those two pieces together, and you (or at least I) get an interesting question: How did Rowling manage to keep us turning those gajillions of pages through a 7-book series? I know there were long narrative stretches, backstory, and other potentially skippable parts. How did she do it? So I re-read book 5 and I noticed some really great tension-building techniques that we all should be applying.
- Add excitement/conflict to potentially boring scenes. Take the scene at the dinner table when Sirius tells Harry all that’s been going on in the wizarding world while Harry was stuck at the Dursleys. Dinner table + backstory should = boring. But it doesn’t, because a couple of tension-building subplots are threaded through it: a) Harry and Sirius are both angry at Dumbledore and the reader doesn’t know why, and b) information is deliberately being kept from Harry–information that directly effects him and he should have access to. Tension comes in the form of information that the reader and character don’t have and strong character emotion because of it.
- Make the setting interesting. Even though this scene happens at a dinner table, the kitchen in question is located in a grimy, grungy, nasty dark wizard’s house that’s occupied by evil creatures and a hostile house elf. Knowing that anything crazy could happen makes the scene more appealing. Granted, every scene can’t occur in a Grimmauld Place, but for situations like these, see what you can do to add interest, humor, fear, or uniqueness to the setting.
- Make sure that other things are going on. While they’re sitting around talking, Tonks is transforming her nose into various shapes for entertainment purposes. Peripheral humor is still funny and always welcome to the reader. Also, Ginny is rolling butterbeer corks on the floor for Crookshanks. This bit isn’t critical to the overall plot, but it adds some action to a scene where there’s not a whole lot happening.
- Delay exciting/important events. In my copy of book 5, Harry learns about his disciplinary hearing on page 33. The actual hearing doesn’t happen for one hundred pages. By delaying that important event, the tension stretches out, and the reader continues reading because they can’t put the book down until they find out whether or not he’s going to be expelled.
- Never give the hero a break. In the first quarter of the book, very few good things happen to Harry. During this time, he:
- is stuck at the Dursleys
- has little or no word from his friends
- is threatened with expulsion for using underage magic
- is being blown off by Dumbledore
- isn’t made a prefect
- sees thestrals along with Hogwart’s resident nutter
- discovers that Hagrid is missing
- has an embarrassing encounter with Cho
- is considered a freak, liar, and attention-seeker by his peers
- endures two week-long, literally torturous detentions with Umbridge
- misses keeper tryouts, and
- pisses off Sirius
During all this time, only two really positive things happen (leaving the Dursleys/reuniting with friends and being acquitted at his hearing). Otherwise, it is literally obstacle after obstacle for poor Harry. Sucks for him, but all that negativity serves to make the reader more sympathetic. We want him to succeed. And when he does, we’re completely impressed because he overcame such opposition. If the path to success were easy, he wouldn’t be a hero.
So keep these tips in mind when writing. By studying a master, maybe we, too, can keep readers hooked for hundreds of pages.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.