Tension propels the best stories. It doesn’t have to be a political thriller or murder mystery to include suspense. Our everyday lives revolve around dozens of tension-building events: paying the bills on time, getting through rush hour traffic, remembering to feed the cats. Any of these things can create tension for your novel: a character pays late and loses power, a parent stuck in traffic leaves a child unattended at a vacant soccer park, hungry cats shred the only copy of a valuable legal document. It doesn’t matter which genre you write, you must include tension to drive the story forward and keep your reader engaged.
I recently read an article in The Christian Communicator by author Steven James – “Six Secrets to Creating and Sustaining Suspense.” He began by identifying the four factors of suspense:
1. Reader empathy
2. Reader concern
3. Impending danger
4. Escalating tension
I’d like to take it a step further. Without #1 – reader empathy – it’s impossible to create concern. Without concern, the reader doesn’t care about the danger, and if he/she doesn’t care about the danger, the tension is impossible. Empathy comes from the ability to relate to a character’s emotions and situations. The strongest empathy is created by uncontrollable circumstances.
Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Frodo’s journey is chosen for him. It started with the creation of the ring, with the missed opportunity to destroy it, and with Bilbo’s discovery of it. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children stumble into Narnia, where Edmund is tricked by a witch. In The Notebook, Allie’s parents interfere, then World War II takes Noah away. In each situation, the characters didn’t choose hardship, it came to them.
It’s difficult to relate to a character who continually makes bad decisions, but it’s easy to empathize with someone who has bad things happen to him. If your hero gets drunk at a party, then crashes his new car, don’t expect your reader to feel bad for the guy. Many people would never consider drinking and driving, so they won’t relate. If, however, a drunk driver hits your hero’s car, it puts the reader in a position to think, “what if that happened to me?” That’s where you want your reader – putting himself in your hero’s shoes (the first step toward concern).
Every good story needs tension, and it all starts with empathy. Whether it’s speculative or romance, adult or young adult literature, the strongest empathy comes from situations beyond the hero’s control, so put your characters in danger and let the tension begin!