Building Narrative Tension: Summary and Checklist

Book Nanny’s top tips for creating and sustaining suspense and tension in your novel:

MH900449057Over the past months, we’ve examined some of the key issues involved in building tension into the structure of a narrative.

So, to be sure that your scenes are creating maximum suspense and reader anticipation, here’s a checklist of the main points:

  1. Do the events and locations in each scene move the scene along physically, geographically, emotionally, and in terms of time?
  2. Is reader knowledge level or one step ahead of at least one of your POV characters?
  3. Are all readers’ expectations fulfilled and all reversals of key decisions explained?
  4. Does the reader have enough information in each scene to be able to anticipate an outcome?
  5. Does the scene up the ante or put physical or psychological pressure on the character or characters?
  6. Does the scene place external and internal obstacles and hindrances in the character’s way so they have to manoeuvre around them?
  7. Are the characters actively choosing to take action to achieve their objective in the scene?
  8. MB900411376Does the scene link to the theme of the book for one or more characters?

If the answer to the majority of the above questions is ‘yes’, chances are your scenes are doing what they need to do in order to keep readers engaged.

If not,why not have another look at Book Nanny’s series on building narrative tension:

Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises, dah … dah … doh? 

Building Narrative Tension 2: A Delicious Trail of Crumbs

Building Narrative Tension 3: Moving the Story Along

Building Narrative Tension 4: The Eleventh Hour

Building Narrative Tension 4: The Eleventh Hour

Continuing our analysis of the sequence of scenes from our Building Narrative Tension 3 post, in this post, we will focus on how combining the tension-building elements discussed in the previous posts with objectives and obstacles and links to the theme of your book can help ensure readers stay fully engaged and turning the pages.

Here are two possibilities for the next Simon POV scene:

SCENARIO 1: Late afternoon: Simon bumps into an old friend from out of town who asks him to go for drink. Simon considers it, but changes his mind at the last minute. He wants to be home on time to get ready for the family event. He smiles wryly. Julia always said he was a creature of habit, and he’s proving her right. But this is the last time: from now on things will be different.

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SCENARIO 2: Late afternoon: Simon is stuck in traffic, but deviates from his normal routine and takes a short cut up a one-way street. He’s pleased with himself – this is the new him – being bad for a change and not the boring old codger Julia thinks he is. He’ll be home in plenty of time.

Both scenarios (going for a drink and the traffic jam) present an obstacle to Julia’s plans and tantalise the reader with the possibility of Simon escaping her murderous clutches, so both equal there. And in each case Simon decides that getting home on time is his priority, so, again, we’re level. In both cases, we learn more about Simon’s character, which, as explained in Building Narrative Tension 1 is the ‘added value’ bonus that comes with fulfilling readers’ expectations, but if we focus specifically on what Simon decides to do in each scene and why, will that make a difference?

Objectives, Character and Theme 

Let us assume that the themes of our story are love dying, and a yearning for freedom and redemption.

MH900414074Scenario 1 offers Simon the opportunity to do something spontaneous, and thereby possibly save his life. True to form, he chooses not to go for a drink. and thereby possibly save his life.

In Scenario 2 Simon grabs the opportunity to begin the process of change; to experience a moment of freedom, unfettered by authority or Julia’s opinion of him. Unbeknownst to him, he plays right into Julia’s hands, because she is banking on his being home exactly on time as usual.

In Scenario 1, Simon is a victim of his own fundamental inability to change, despite his hopes for a new beginning in Antarctica. His decision is based on a negative: he declines to do something rather than taking positive action, as he does in Scenario 2, to achieve his objective to get home on time.

Scenario 2 has more impact in terms of action, and, in showing that Simon can change, it opens up the possibility of redemption, unlike Scenario 1, which appears to firmly close that off.

MB900303675aTherein lies the crux of the matter: if we close off any chance of redemption for Simon, we’ve already consigned him to his fate at this point in the narrative. Essentially, he can do no more to save himself and any reprieve will have to come from Julia. But how likely is that, given that it is Julia’s determined and controlling nature that is causing Simon to flee to Antarctica? So, if a reprieve from Julia can only be achieved by her acting ‘out of character‘ (which screams plot contrivance), then from a reader’s point of view, any attempt to build up further suspense from here simply gets in the way of the story. Essentially, we might as well cut to the chase and get to the murder showdown.

Which might work if we didn’t have redemption as one of our themes.

Therefore, faced with a choice between two equally workable scenes, ask yourself the question, which one best fits (all) the themes of the book?

In the present case, it’s Scenario 2. And as an added bonus we also get the painful irony that Simon’s attempts to change become pivotal events leading to his possible destruction.

Moving swiftly along (and yes, time will now begin to speed up as we hurtle towards the climax of our sequence), let’s get back to Julia, who has managed to withstand the psychological pressure of the phone call with her daughter, Poppy, in Building Narrative Tension 3. This is her ‘eleventh hour’, and we put one more obstacle in her way: a memory of the days when she and Simon were a new beginning and love was not dying or already dead.

SO01677_aEarly evening: Julia sits in the kitchen, gleaming butcher’s knife beside her on the table in readiness. A picture on the wall of her and Simon in happier days causes her a nanosecond of hesitation. Or regret? Perhaps Simon will surprise her this time. Perhaps he won’t come home at all, or he’ll be late; or he will come home and do something extraordinary? As the clock in the hallway chimes 6 o’clock, Julia holds her breath …

Does Julia kill Simon? Or does the success of his trip up the one-way street inspire Simon to be a changed man on his arrival home and do whatever ‘extraordinary’ thing Julia is hoping for from him? Or will Poppy, disturbed by her earlier call with her mother, turn up early for the party and on time to save Simon?

For the purposes of this exercise, suffice it to say, the journey to this point is more important than the actual ending. Along the way we have looked at how to structure our sequence from the original sketchy outline so that each scene builds on the previous one and works on a number of different plot, character and thematic levels to increase reader anticipation and engagement in the narrative.

And, for that, reason, I’ll leave the decision as to poor Simon’s fate up to you, dear readers. What do you think happens next? Oooh, the suspense!