When writing fiction, tension is critical for reader engagement. As a writer, we want our readers to ‘not want to put the book down.’ When talking tension, I’ll cover three situations writers can create for dramatic tension. Mystery, Suspense, and Dramatic Irony.

Mystery

A mystery starts when the audience knows less than the characters do. As a reader we get glimpses of what the characters are doing, but what we don’t know is why? Or we get a sense of why something occurred, but don’t know how, or who was involved. These are just some of the pieces of information we gather as we move further into the story. Some authors may leave breadcrumbs along the way to help the reader try and figure things along the way.

Other writers might give a single hint that we as the reader overlook, which at the moment doesn’t appear out of the ordinary. But when put in context at the end of the story, we think this was a genius move on the part of the writer. Or lay blame for driving us crazy.

Mysteries are a very successful genre, and many readers find them rewarding or even fun. Some may like the challenge. And that’s the appeal for many of us who read mysteries, because 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.

However, mysteries don’t appeal to all readers and that’s okay. That’s why there are so many genres to choose from. For me, I can read one or two mysteries in a row, but then I have to move onto another genre, or I feel like my head will explode. I love mysteries, but in small doses.

Suspense

Now I want to move onto the next story tension setter. Suspense. A suspense occurs when the audience knows as much as the characters. They don’t know what’s going to happen and neither do we. We thus co-experience their unknowingness and read on not only out of curiosity but also concern. But suspense doesn’t have to involve an axe wielding serial killer clown, or a rickety bridge suspended above raging rivers filled with crocodiles. However, these could be interesting reads.

Concern is just a matter of investing in outcomes that neither we nor the character yet know. One of the tools I like to use in my suspense is foreshadowing. An example could be as simple as your character has to get on a plane. As a writer, this is a great way to build suspense. The avid reader may not think much of a plane ride, however, for some, they’re anticipating suspense on the flight. Could be a crazed passenger, such as the axe wielding serial killer clown. Or the plane has a massive failure of some kind and starts to descend toward a rickety bridge suspended above raging rivers filled with crocodiles. Not sure how an axe wielding serial killer clown gets onto a plane with airport security these days, but I was just trying to draw you in. And that’s the point of suspense.

Dramatic Irony

Now to move onto the final situation. Dramatic Irony. In dramatic irony, we know more than the character. A great example of this is depicted in the play, Romeo and Juliet. When Romeo finds Juliet dead, we know she’s not dead. But then we watch in horror as Romeo drinks poison to “join her” in death. As this is unfolding, maybe you’re trying to warn him, even though we know the outcome isn’t going to change. In dramatic irony, it’s not curiosity that we feel. It’s concern alone.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that these three situations are not always entirely distinct and separate. We know Juliet’s not dead, so there’s dramatic irony surrounding Romeo’s reaction, but we’re still surprised by his killing himself. Then Juliet wakes up. We know more than she does about what happened while she was unconscious, but we don’t know how she’ll react. Dramatic irony quickly becomes suspense in many cases. However, this could be turned into a mystery if the scene is reversed, and we discover Romeo is dead. However, when Juliet awakens neither Juliet nor the reader know how he died.

Mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony are tools writers use to create tension and thus to pull readers into the story. Knowing how to create tension ranks up there as one of the most important skills for anyone creating stories. The key to remember is this. If you have tension on every page, you draw your readers into the story, and never put the book down until they get to the last page.

 I hope you found this article useful, and I wish you all the best in your writing.  

James Glass

James

James Glass retired from the United States Navy after 22 years of service. After retiring, he exchanged his rifle for a pen. He and his family moved back to the Florida Panhandle. He’s married and has two children. James is also the President of the Panhandle Writer's Group.

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