So, after my last post on tension, Christine Mandiloff asked for suggestions of other books where tension is used well. I had to think about this, but I’ve come up with a few that I think are fitting, for different reasons. Keep in mind, though, that tension is somewhat relative, and what I find riveting may be kind of…eh…to you.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
I’m pretty sure this one’s universal. And the tension comes in a couple of forms. First, high stakes. I mean, it’s life or death. When the stakes are that high, the reader is going to be on the edge of their seat. Secondly, unbelievable circumstances. Collins created such a uniquely horrific scenario in the arena that the reader can’t not keep reading. It’s like the car wreck that you can’t stop looking at. And lastly, the stakes aren’t just high once or twice or for a little while. Katniss’s life is in danger repeatedly throughout the whole book.
Applications: 1. Make sure your character’s stakes are high. 2. Make the situation as bad as you possibly can for your characters. Then, make it worse. 3. Keep threatening what’s at stake and reminding the reader what’s at risk.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
Tension is high in this one because of, again, high stakes. Survival or extinction. The fact that the story is based on the Holocaust, on real-life events, makes it even more gut-wrenching. Knowing that this kind of thing happened repeatedly to lots of different people makes you want the main character to succeed all the more. And lastly, the narrator. Um, it’s Death. With a first-person story, you might be riveted, but you also know, pretty much, that the main character is going to make it. But here, in this environment where literally millions of people didn’t survive, you just don’t know if the main character is going to pull through. That kind of uncertainty for the character the reader has come to love is guaranteed to engage them emotionally.
1. High Stakes.
2. Whenever possible, draw parallels between your character’s world and ours. Tap into the emotions of historical events to make your story believable, engaging, and heart-wrenching.
3. If the main character’s life is on the line, find a way to make the reader question whether or not she’s going to make it.
Divergent, Veronica Roth
First–you guessed it. High stakes. Sometimes Tris’s life is in danger (often in a brutal or violent manner), and other times, she’s in danger of a fate that in her society is maybe worse than death: being outcast, Factionless. Roth makes it very clear what a big deal this is for people in Tris’s world, so right off the bat, the reader does NOT want this to happen to her.
1. Again, make the stakes high.
2. Make sure your reader understands their importance.
How To Survive Middle School, Donna Gephart
Ok. This humorous contemporary MG is miles apart from the preceding examples, but, like them, I couldn’t put the book down. Why? Tension, in the form of a super-empathetic character. He’s nerdy, and funny, and kind of clueless–in other words, he’s vulnerable. He’s like that kid everyone knew who was always getting picked on and no one stood up for him. I wanted to stand up for him. And it helped that the voice was crystal clear. David sounded like someone I knew. It’s hard not to root for someone you know. Secondly, you could see from the start what was coming down the pike for poor David, and he had no clue. Sometimes it’s good to keep things under wraps, but sometimes it’s better to let the reader know just what’s coming, so they’ll want to run in and save the main character from himself. And last, while I wouldn’t classify the stakes as high (though David surely would have), I would call them universal. Middle school humiliation and social exile. Who hasn’t experienced that, or seen it happening first-hand?
1. Create a truly empathetic character.
2. Give him a voice that, while unique, is familiar.
3. Create universal stakes that the reader can relate to.
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.