Jun 15 2012

Three Powerful Tips To Heighten Story Tension

Published by at 12:13 pm under Guest Articles,Pacing,Plotting,Writing Articles

This article reveals three powerful ways to play ‘games with time’ when crafting a story. They build suspense and engage the reader’s interest. Stories that master narrative pace get published. 


One key to crafting a successful story, delighting your reader – and even winning a top writing award – is to vary the pace. A car chase that never ends becomes, in time, as dull as a game of baccarat to spectators who can’t play cards.


But you can make even the report of a baccarat game as exciting as a car chase, if you alternate the pace. (Ian Fleming did precisely that in Casino Royale.)


Pacing secret #1: Quicken the pace at the start and finish


A simple way to keep the reading engaged in your story is: make both your opening and closing paragraphs fast-paced. In the middle, alternate the pace. Switch it between fast and slow – between action and dialogue (fast tempo) and description and reflection (slow tempo).


As you hasten towards the end, use shorter words, shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. Switch between points of view more rapidly (if your story uses several viewpoints). To build your climax, slow the reader down just before the final peak of emotional impact.


One way to do this is to pause just before the end and summarise the events that have occurred so far. Or insert an episode of reflection or description. Then end your story with a thunderbolt.


Classical dramatists called this technique catastasis. It builds suspense. It impresses publishers and wins story writing contest.


Pacing secret #2: Play games with time


Another way to vary the pace is to play games with time.


In a fictional story, there is ‘real time’ and ‘story time’. Real time is the pace with which the reader reads the story. Dialogue is an example of real time. Usually, the reader will read a continuous patch of dialogue in exactly the time period it took in the story. Real time could be called ‘reader time’.


Story time is what the author manipulates, so that events can be presented in an interesting or suspenseful way. It’s the time taken by the story itself.


In Tom Jones, Fielding cut out twelve years from Tom Jones’s life. Why? Because they were boring. Fielding focused just on those key episodes of drama, romance and intrigue. He set them in ‘story time’.


Story time is very much like perceptual time. That’s the memory we retain of key moments – those incidents, howsoever momentous or trivial, that we remember a long time afterwards.


For example, a jetsetter might fly from London to New York at 4am, fill the day with meetings and collapse into bed. Her memory will be packed with key moments, even a week later.


But a retired person could spend all day writing a postcard, finding a stamp, posting the postcard, and feeding the cat. Next week, she’ll probably remember nothing of that day.


A good story focuses on the key moments, just as our memories do. If only three key moments occur in a character’s life in a whole year, describe those three key moments. Cut the rest.


Try this exercise in narrative pace for yourself. Remember a recent day in which a lot of colourful things happened to you. Write them down. Then re-arrange them in their order of dramatic interest. Start with the second most interesting incident that day and end with the most powerful event that occurred.


True, you may have to skew the order in which those events really happened. For that, you play games with time. You use flashbacks and foreshadowings.


Pacing secret #3: Use flashbacks and foreshadowings


A flashback is where the story returns to an incident some time before the current ‘time’ of the story. A foreshadow is where the story anticipates an event to come.


If the story is written through the viewpoint of a character (or characters) these time shifts can occur in the mind of your main narrator.  S/he is reminded of an event in the past – or anticipates one to come.


Of course, if the story is written from the view of the ‘omniscient narrator’, or anonymous author, it’s very easy to cut between the past, present and future. But do make it very clear where each new scene is located, time-wise, or the reader will be hopelessly confused!


Intersperse each little moment of drama with a slower episode of reflection or description, to prepare for the climax of the next event. In other words, vary the pace.


You now have a compelling structure. Weave in an intriguing plot-line plus fascinating characters and your story can’t fail to engage the reader. Better still, it will get published!


Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. Please see his free 14-part course in writing fiction for profit.

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Three Powerful Tips To Heighten Story Tension”

  1. St.on 18 Jun 2012 at 11:31 am

    Pacing is the ebb of my being.

    When I try to change my pacing, my voice and tone get wonky and I lose momentum. It makes for very unproductive editing sessions.

  2. John Yeomanon 21 Jun 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Try reading it aloud! That way, you’ll detect at once when your pace or ‘voice’ isn’t right. And you can cut out a lot of clumsy, unnatural phrasing too.

  3. JVKJRon 14 Dec 2012 at 4:05 pm

    How do you foreshadow something properly? What I mean is how do you keep a good balance, so that it isn’t glued onto a reader’s nose, but the hints are there so they may see it coming?

  4. B. McKenzieon 14 Dec 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Even if you’re not writing a mystery novel, I would recommend checking out how the masters of mystery do it–e.g. in Sherlock Holmes stories, we see enough strangeness to know that something helluva interesting and/or dangerous is afoot, and we badly want to know more. The characters usually don’t know exactly what’s going on, but they know enough to help lead the readers and build anticipation. Show us the tip of the iceberg and make us wonder what lurks beneath the surface.

    In contrast, the most common problem for foreshadowing that I’ve seen is when the suspense is entirely artificial/unnatural–e.g. a mentor character knows what’s going on but doesn’t tell the main character ONLY because the author thinks that the mystery adds to the story. (There are a lot of ways to fix such an issue, but just one possibility is that the mentor is holding something back because being completely forthright would implicate himself in a crime or something disastrously shameful).

    One foreshadowing possibility is that the character suspects Something Serious (e.g. that his friend John is secretly working for the enemy and/or hiding some secret which would substantially affect the plot), BUT can’t quite prove it yet. This will foreshadow the readers to think “Okay, John may be hiding Secret X.” However, MERELY resolving this thread by revealing “He was hiding Secret X!” or “He was not!” would probably not be incredibly satisfying.

    A more interesting resolution: the main character was correct that something unusual was going on, but badly misunderstood exactly what it was, and preferably the misunderstanding really affects how the characters tried to solve the central issue. For example, in the first Harry Potter book, the heroes see Snape doing strange things and plausibly conclude that he’s trying to kill Harry Potter. However, at the end of the first book, we actually learn that those strange things were actually an attempt to SAVE Harry. In a cop story, the main characters might be cops trying to solve a case AND figure out which cop on the team is working for the mob, but the cop they suspect most (because he does strange things and can’t explain why he’s not being upfront with his partners and teammates) is actually working with Internal Affairs or the feds on his own mole-hunt. This misunderstanding might seriously set back the investigation into the actual mole, jeopardize the central case in some way, and/or generate new obstacles for the main character (like a conflict with IA agents who now suspect that HE is the mole).

  5. Alxrgrson 15 Dec 2014 at 7:16 am

    Would it be possible for you to expand on the effective use of flashbacks? How, when, why, etc. I’ve decided to include flashbacks in my story to portray pivotal childhood moments but I’m unsure how to do them properly without it coming off cheesy and samey.

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply