April 6, 2021
3 Techniques for Creating Tension
by Tim Storm
Let’s talk reader engagement. It comes from tension and from the reader’s anticipation of change. And there are three situations a writer can create in order to cultivate dramatic tension and to get readers anticipating change: mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony.
These labels name “story/audience relationships,” notes Robert McKee in his book Story.
In this brief article, I want to introduce these concepts and give some clear examples for each.
When the audience knows less than the characters do, we have a “mystery” situation. What does this look like? Pick up any book you have lying around, and the read the first page. You’re bound to see some mystery. Here are the first few lines of David Mitchell’s Slade House, the first book I grabbed:
Whatever Mum’s saying’s drowned out by the gravy roar of the bus pulling away, revealing a pub called The Fox and Hounds. The sign shows three beagles cornering a fox. They’re about to pounce and rip it apart.
The character, the first-person narrator whose name, we later learn, is Nathan, knows some things we readers don’t. He knows what city they’re in; he knows approximately where they’ve just arrived and what they’re going to be doing; he knows how he feels about this errand they’re on; he knows his mother and his relationship with her.
But these lines from the book give us the proverbial tip of the iceberg for all of those things. They don’t fully reveal any of that information, thereby leaving the reader to ask questions about the very things Nathan already knows. What are they doing? Where are they? Why is he already reading predatory intent into pub signs?
That’s how mystery draws us in. We read on because we want to catch up with what the characters in the story already know.
Robert McKee points out that mystery, which you could call a writer technique for engaging the reader, creates curiosity.
Another great article on how to pair surprise and suspense.
Tim is one of our very popular conference presenters. You can see him in March 2022 at Let's Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference.
T.D. Storm writes short stories and essays. His work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Black Warrior Review, Copper Nickel, and Literary Hub. He he has been a finalist in a number of contests, including the International Literary Competition at Salem College, which he won in 2013. He has an MFA in Writing from Pacific University.
Tim lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he works as a writing coach and editor. You can learn more about his teaching and editing at stormwritingschool.com. Prior to his current work, he taught high school English for 15 years and briefly pursued an Olympic rowing berth.
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