Walking the High Wire: The Art of Writing Tension

Un paso mas  by Beatriz Pitarch

Un paso mas by Beatriz Pitarch

What is it that makes a “page-turner”? What indefinable, shivery quality does a book possess that makes you unable to put it down? 

On a personal, subjective level, that “it” quality differs from reader to reader. But I would argue that on an objective, craft-oriented level, all page-turners have one quality in common: narrative tension.

What is narrative tension? I personally define it as the unbearable need to know what happens next. Some of the best works of commercial fiction are rife with narrative tension, which I believe contributes to their commercial status. For works in the thriller or suspense category, pinpointing the source of narrative tension is relatively easy: Whodunnit? Will the protagonist survive? Will s/he save the day? But what about books that fall outside that genre?

Any book, regardless of genre, can have narrative tension. How? When the stakes are clearly defined, but their outcome is left uncertain. For example, let us discuss Harry Potter. Earlier books in the series were finely crafted middle-grade mysteries within a fantasy framework (The Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the finest examples of a mystery, full stop), but as the books progressed, they still retained narrative tension. How? Because we know the stakes (Harry must defeat Voldemort) and are unsure of the outcome (how he will do it). But each book itself also contained micro-environments of narrative tension: how will the Trio get out of their scrapes this time? or when will Ron and Hermione finally get together? In my opinion, all of these elements combined contributed to the series’ popularity; so many of my fondest memories from high school are me sitting with a circle of friends on the terrace during lunch, passionately discussing and speculating what would happen in the next book. Tension breeds anticipation, and commercial works like Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code, The Lovely Bones et al are examples of how that can drive success.

So how to craft narrative tension in our own work? By posing story questions. I’ve mentioned story questions before, and I think they are fundamental to crafting a book you don’t want to put down. Most often, the story question can be boiled down to What does the protagonist stand to lose?–on both an intimate and a broader scale. What does the protagonist stand to lose if s/he _____ in this scene and how does that contribute to what s/he stands to lose overall? 

Any time the reader is left wondering or asking questions, narrative tension is created, which leads to anticipation and unease, for which the only solution is to read on. 😉 There are many ways to leave the reader wondering: by ending all the chapters on cliffhangers (The Da Vinci Code), by slowly layering secrets and deceptions that are begging to be answered by the book’s end, (Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn), by calling into question whether or not a killer will be brought to justice (The Lovely Bones), etc.

Is there a trick to writing commercial fiction? Personally, I don’t think so. But I think you’ll find that most bestselling books are masters of walking the high wire of tension, whether the book is literary or YA or romance.

What do you guys think? Do you think narrative tension is a thing? Let us know in the comments below!


7 Responses to Walking the High Wire: The Art of Writing Tension

  1. PK Hrezo Mar 7 2014 at 7:59 am #

    Oh great topic! Something I have to remind myself while writing. The Da Vinci Code is such a great example because I remember staying up til 3am some nights cuz I simply could NOT put that book down. I actually went back and studied it later to see how Brown had managed to do that.
    It really is about the story questions, and leaving many of them unanswered for as long as possible. There’s a real skill to threading in just the most minimal info necessary to taunt the reader with.

  2. Jean Reidy Mar 7 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    Great post. Unanswered questions is a great way to describe narrative tension. I might add that they have to be questions the reader cares about. Seems obvious, I know, but sometimes in my early drafts I end up with some “so what?” cliffhangers that create no tension at all. Thank you, JJ.

  3. Alys Mar 8 2014 at 4:39 am #

    I think narrative tension can be boiled down even further. There are two big questions in every story: “Will it happen?” and “How will it happen?” Will these two characters in a romance novel fall in love? How will they fall in love? Will Katniss survive the hunger games? How will she survive? Will Harry Potter defeat Voladmort? How?

    “Will” and “How” are nice easy markers to work around when writing and set up a wealth of plot possibilities for the writer to follow. So long as the questions are answered by the end of the book (or series), the reader will be satisfied that the story has been told.

    Or, so I think.

  4. Hamed Mar 9 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    I’m reading “gone Girl” these days and man oh man this topic is convenient! All of the tricks you mentioned are in the book. Especially “slowly layering secrets and deceptions.”
    Thank you for this great lesson or as you didn’t want to call it tricks. I understand crafting story questions is the essence of a great narrative tension and if learning to use it correctly is all I need but I wanted to ask you if you could expand it a little bit, give us more examples and –sorry to say it again- tricks. More advanced.
    Thank you again and have a great day.

  5. Cheyenne Mar 12 2014 at 7:46 am #

    Such an important topic, and a great post. THE LOVELY BONES is a perfect example — I was on the edge of my seat throughout that book, because from so early on we’re asking ourselves whether the killer is going to be found, right under everyone’s noses. The tension *makes* that book work. The character explorations are all very interesting, but without that constant, pulsing tension, it would just be a colourful cast without any purpose. So it reminds me of the argument that characters are the most important aspect of a story… I think they are, because you have to care about them, and you want characters that stick with you long after you’ve finished. But without tension, those characters are just floating around. So this really reminds me it’s a combination, and there’s not just ONE thing that makes a book un-put-downable.

    And I WISH Harry Potter had been out when I was in high school! More like post-uni for me 😉 (feeling old!)

  6. Alexa S. Mar 16 2014 at 8:53 pm #

    Seriously, I just love when there are posts like this on Publishing Crawl! Such simple concepts, and yet, they could definitely change the way that I write and implement things in my stories. Narrative tension is certainly a big part of the novels that I find gripping, and I love that you used Harry Potter as an example!

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