Tighten the Tension in Your Novel

By: Cheryl St John

“Your novel is lacking tension.”

“I understand the reason for this scene, but my mind kept wandering while I was reading.”

“This chapter is missing a hook … I’m just not interested.”

You might have received this or similar feedback from your writing buddy, critique group, or even an agent or editor … but what do you do now? It’s easy to recognize tension in the works of others—reading leaves you feeling excited, even breathless—but how do you weave it into your own pages? Cheryl St.John, author of Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict, shares three ways to create and sustain tension throughout your novel.

1. Set up the tension. 

Keep saying no to your characters. Whatever it is they want, hold it back. The best conflict is one that appears unsolvable, so heap difficult situations on your characters and make them prove their mettle. Don’t make their situations easier; always make their lives harder.

Look at your character’s goals, and ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Then take the worst thing a step further. For emotional intensity, conflict should be directly related to the character’s internal goals and to his backstory. Don’t rely on “incidents”—events that could happen to anyone and don’t have emotional importance to this particular character—to carry scenes or conflict. See More . . . 

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