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?

What Is Your Character’s Deepest Desire?

Maybe you’ve heard this canard tossed about in writing conferences or on writing blogs: your protagonist has to want something.

So, what the heck does that mean? Isn’t it enough, you might think, to just tell the story?

Well, technically. That’s the bare bones of the beast. But to really make your fiction pop, your protagonist needs a compelling goal that will keep readers turning pages to see how he or she is going to achieve such a seemingly impossible task.

Think about some of your favorite and most riveting novels. The ones that kept you up past your bedtime, while you read another chapter and another chapter and another chapter. The protagonist probably wants something desperately, deeply, and so badly that he or she would be willing to sacrifice anything up to and including his or her life.

For example, in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, one of the protagonists, Miss Skeeter, desperately wants to tell the stories of the African-American women who work as maids in the racially-charged environment of 1960s Mississippi, where the consequences of telling these stories could mean getting the maids fired or imprisoned. She wants this so badly that she turns her back on societal expectations of a white woman in that time and place and finds herself ostracized by her former friends. But she still does it. And we keep reading because we want her to achieve that goal.

For the two young Afghani women at the center of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, their desire is to stay alive in their war-torn country under the thumb of various oppressive and violent regimes. As readers, we’ve developed sympathy for them and pull for them to succeed.

This overarching desire doesn’t always require bigger-than-big heroic action. It could be quieter, but still as compelling. The protagonist of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist just wants to get on with his life after losing his son in a random shooting. The nonagenarian nursing home resident of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants just wants to tell the story of his amazing life with the circus.

What about your protagonist? Is it an old score he wants to settle? An unmet desire?  Curiosity about the path not taken, when she meets an old friend who took it? (This is basically both protagonists’ desires in the film, The Turning Point. Excellent rental, by the way.) Or is your hero in danger and looking to escape? If you’re writing literary fiction or something with a more character-driven plot, see what drives your character. This should give you some hints about what’s important, what’s worth leaving the comfort of his or her daily existence for, and maybe, what’s worth risking everything for.

Still have no idea what your protagonist wants? Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. Try this writing exercise that’s really worked for me. Get into a quiet place, where you won’t be disturbed. Take a few deep breaths, and imagine that your protagonist is sitting right next to you. Fill in as much detail as you can in your mind, down to what he or she is wearing, and even the subtle gestures this character makes. Then do a little interview. Ask your protagonist what he or she wants. Be patient and pay attention. What you learn might surprise you.

What are some of your favorite protagonists from the novels you’ve read? What moves them? What do they want? What keeps you turning the page?