How to Heighten the Tension In Your Novel

Your novel’s protagonist has a goal. It could be as simple as bouncing back from heartache or as complex as saving the world from an evil genius and his army of giant, irradiated Madagascar hissing cockroaches. But if your character achieves his or her goals too quickly or too easily, it will make for pretty boring reading, and mire you in that dreaded dead zone of a manuscript: the sagging middle. Here’s how you can raise the stakes and heighten the tension:

1.  Toss in a good, old-fashioned monkey wrench. Imagine your protagonist is a bored kindergarten teacher who teams up with her father, a retired detective, to solve mysteries on her summer break. She agrees to meet a potential source in a dicey neighborhood. But she gets lost. Yes, she has a high-tech GPS gizmo that will help her find the address in a trice, but how much fun would it be if everything went according to plan? Have her leave it in her father’s car. Or break it. How else could she meet that sort-of creepy guy on the corner who gives her directions and ends up being an undercover cop who saves her life?

2.  Let things go terribly wrong. It’s hard, I know, to see any pain befall your beloved protagonist or secondary actors. But adversity can build character. Does the kindergarten teacher quit the case because someone tosses a brick through her window, poisons her dog, or tries to shoot her or her father? Or does this just double her resolve to see justice done?

3. Add a few unintended consequences. The kindergarten teacher’s mother, hating the whole idea of her daughter traipsing off to God-knows-what dangers with her obsessed husband, and worried sick when it’s one in the morning and she hasn’t returned, drives off into the night to find her. She makes an inquiry to the wrong person at a seedy bar. The bad guys kidnap her to force the kindergarten teacher off their tails. Okay…now what is our fearless detective to do?

4. Always ask, “What if?” Mom is no slouch. She tries to escape from the bad guys, using the lock-picking skills she developed while a student at a very unusual boarding school for girls. What if she gets out of the shed in which she’d been held prisoner, only to overhear the bad guys planning their next heist? They desperately lack a safe-cracker. What if she goes rogue and joins them? What does she have to do to convince them she’s on their side?

5. Let a character hit bottom. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea bag–you never know how strong she is until gets in hot water.” In our kindergarten teacher’s story, perhaps all looks lost. Her mother has gone to the dark side. Her father is drinking again. And someone just blew up her car, broke into her apartment and rearranged all of the jars in her spice rack. As she’s calling the police, she hears footsteps. She turns to see a man with a gun. It’s her ex-husband, a sketchy dude, but the love of her life. He assaults her, steals her purse and takes off, leaving her bloodied on the living room floor. Now what? Okay, she’s allowed to brush away a few tears (she’s only human), but a strong protagonist in a situation like this will rise to the occasion. She’ll solve the mystery. She’ll give that bastard what he deserves and clear her mother’s name. Then she can collapse, perhaps in the arms of her now-sober father, and gather her strength for the sequel.

How’s your middle these days? A little soft? How do you raise the stakes for your characters?

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Author: laurieboris

Writer, editor, proofreader, stand-up comedian in another life.

6 thoughts on “How to Heighten the Tension In Your Novel”

  1. Is it possible to have too much tension? I have a tendency to put my characters in hot water and then dump in a load of piranhas. I’m so mean.

    1. Pirahnas are good, And I feel mean, too, when I break a character’s leg or something. But occasionally, you might need a break in the action to give the characters a chance to rest, reveal plot or character, and even give the readers a break. It’s a balance. Too much of that and the plot will lag. reading it to yourself or other people when you’re ready might help find either places where you could build in breaks or where the tension is too low.

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