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.


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!

Building Narrative Tension 3: Moving The Story Along

In this post, we’re taking a look at how to build a sequence of scenes to maximise tension and keep readers hooked to the end. We’re using our old friends, Simon and Julia Specimen, from previous posts. As before, we have two POVs, so we will be switching between the two.

To start with, the notes for our first draft version of the sequence run something like this:

BD09315_It’s the day of the family gathering before Simon leaves for Antarctica – Julia and Simon at  breakfast – atmosphere strained and tense. Simon goes out to work – his day progresses as usual. He has an important meeting; goes to lunch with his best buddy; they talk about him leaving for Antarctica. Julia is in her garden; she chats to the neighbour, talks to her daughter, reminisces about her youth/early romance with Simon. Simon arrives home and goes up to have a shower as he always does. He’s a creature of habit. Sometimes Julia hates him for it. This is one of those times. She makes a snap decision – he won’t leave her – she won’t let him. Julia grabs a knife and rushes upstairs. 

Let’s analyse the sequence above from the point of view of building tension. First of all, showing the general ‘averageness’ of the day could be a problem; either we are in danger of repeating information from earlier in the book, or the reader will be wondering why this information wasn’t given before now. Instead, we should look at sequence carefully and pick out what is actually interesting for the reader. How about the last sentences: ‘Julia makes a snap decision’ and so on? The question is how can we make the whole day as interesting as these sentences and really build tension for the reader?

  • Reader knowledge: keep your reader level or one step ahead of your POV character.

MB900310506We discussed reader knowledge in Building Narrative Tension 2: A Delicious Trail of Crumbs. So putting that into practice: what if Julia’s decision to kill comes earlier on? In this case, the reader is level with Julia and ahead of Simon. Rather than giving the game away, this cranks up reader anticipation.Once we are aware of Julia’s intentions, average and everyday events take on a much greater significance and provide a dramatic contrast to the possible fate awaiting Simon at home that evening.

So now our first scene looks something more like this:

Early morning: as Simon’s car disappears down the driveway, Julia unloads the dishwasher to make room for the breakfast dishes. She stares at the butcher’s knife in her hand and makes her decision: she will not allow Simon to leave her. She will kill him that evening before the planned family gathering to wish him well before he leaves for the Antarctica posting.

Now that we’ve grabbed our readers’ attention, each subsequent scene needs to move the story along.  But how do you make plot choices which do just that?

  • Forward momentum: time and movement 

MB900411376Generally speaking, each scene should move on in time, bringing us closer to the climax of the sequence. Or perhaps the movement is geographical: a step further along in a character’s physical journey? Either way, actual time passing or physical movement towards a particular place or point in time helps to build a sense of forward momentum in a narrative.

  • Emotional momentum

And forward momentum shouldn’t be confined to the physical. Each new scene should move the story along emotionally or psychologically by providing readers with new character information or events which increase their sense of anticipation. So, let’s switch to Simon’s POV and ask ourselves what is important about his day, given that we now know what Julia is planning for him? Let’s move him on in time, place and give our reader some new information which will ratchet up the suspense:

MH900434593It’s mid-morning: Simon’s workplace. He’s in the middle of a good-humoured, boozy, leaving do and happily accepting good wishes for the future from his soon-to-be-ex work colleagues. Mixed feelings about leaving work, but he’s excited. He’s looking forward to the evening – after tonight everything will be resolved and he will be free of Julia and their problems.

Everything in Simon’s world is rosy, because, he, unlike the reader, has no idea of what Julia has planned for him. It’s this emotional juxtaposition of character ignorance and reader knowledge that keeps the reader on tenterhooks.

  • Put the lid on the emotional/psychological pressure cooker and turn to maximum.

We’re back with Julia; so how do we push the story along for her? Should we show her weeding the garden and waving to the nosy neighbour as usual in a bid to keep up the pretence of normality? But it’s no longer a normal day for Julia, so, instead, let’s twist a few psychological screws and see what happens. Let’s put her in a position where she has an opportunity to reveal, or is in danger of revealing, what is going on inside her:

Early afternoon: Julia’s list of things to do for the party lies on the kitchen table unread.  MB900389154Her eldest daughter, Poppy, calls. She wants to come round to help Julia out with the preparations for the family get-together. Julia has to stop her. Poppy senses her mother’s turmoil, but she thinks it is because Julia is upset at Simon leaving. In fact, there’s a hurricane blowing inside Julia and the effort not to vent her true anger and bitterness at Simon’s betrayal is almost unbearable. 

Poppy’s call raises both external and internal obstacles to Julia’s plan: there is a moment where she could change her mind, or be found out and, as readers, we are wondering whether Julia’s resolve will hold, will she crack and reveal all or will Poppy realise in time that something is terribly wrong with her mother?


Building Narrative Tension 2: A Trail of Delicious Crumbs

How much information do readers need to be able to fully understand what is going on in a story? It may appear an odd complaint, but sometimes when structuring a series of scenes to build tension, authors can be just as guilty of giving a reader too little plot information as too much. Sometimes it’s a case of giving them the right information at the wrong time. But what is certain is that readers don’t enjoy being treated like mushrooms: that is, being kept the dark and having stuff thrown at them unexpectedly.

To illustrate, let’s go back to our two resident Book Nanny characters: Simon and Julia. The last time we met Simon in Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises…dah, dah…doh?, he was trying to find a good time to tell Julia that their twenty-five year marriage was over. And so we continue:

MB900023351‘Finally they were alone. This was it. Simon grabbed the opportunity and blurted it out. Typically for Julia, she took the news rather stoically at first. ‘Well, that’s that, I suppose. There’s nothing to be done, is there?’ She inhaled deeply, as if trying to breathe in the entire room. A bitter, strangled cry escaped as she exhaled. It’s all her fault, isn’t it? She’s to blame, I know she is! This would never have happened if you hadn’t been offered that posting in Antarctica.’ 

So what’s the problem here? Well, personally, as a reader, rather than focussing on the emotion of the moment, I find myself instead taken completely by surprise by the reference to Antarctica. It even overshadows the news that someone else might be responsible for the couple’s marital difficulties. It’s one of those confusing reader moments when you feel obliged to go back to the earlier scene to check you haven’t missed something. Rather than drawing me further into the story, the revelation pushes me away. I feel excluded and left out, as though the characters and the author were in possession of some important information all along, but nobody bothered letting me in on the secret.

As a general rule, to avoid such unnecessary shocks to the narrative, you should err on the side of allowing the reader to be at least on the same knowledge level, or even one step ahead, of your POV characters rather than two jumps behind them. 

Reader anticipation is key when building suspense. So set your scene. Give your readers enough information to allow them to think ahead of your character and anticipate what happens next. Think of it as a trail of intriguing information crumbs which increasingly ‘ups the ante’ for a character, rather than bombarding readers with a series of plot surprises or sudden events which can come across as contrivances or manipulations.

So how do you decide which information is important to impart to a reader at the start and which can hold until later? Consider the two pieces of information from Julia in the scene above: (1) that someone else is to blame and (2)  Antarctica. MH900414074Well, Julia’s accusation is exactly that: an accusation. We don’t know if someone else is to blame for the break-up of their relationship – that is something that will be explored over the course of the story. Julia’s reference to it in this scene moves that element of the story on from the first scene and is the right reference in the right place. However, the Antarctica trip is clearly a pivotal plot point for Simon: either he has already been there and something has happened to make him want to end his marriage to Julia, or he has taken the posting for whatever reason and wants to deal with the marriage issue before he leaves. Either way, its existence has a direct bearing on what he wants (there we go with objectives again!) and the steps he takes to achieve his goals. Which is why the mention of it only in the second scene strikes a reader as an omission or exclusion.

So let’s see what happens when we add Antarctica to the opening paragraph of the scene in my previous Building Narrative Tension 1 post:

‘Do it, do it now!’ The small voice in his head urged Simon on as he made his way to the greenhouse. In three weeks’ time, he would be holed up in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, and it would be too late. But Julia was alone at last, and he would tell her now. That it was over. Them. After twenty-five years, three children, five dogs and a grandchild. Yes, he would do it. He would tell her. She looked up at him as he reached the greenhouse door.

Much better, don’t you agree? Putting Simon under time pressure to have the ‘Big Talk’ gives this scene a far greater sense of urgency. It also provides an intriguing hook for the reader as we want to know more about his upcoming trip to the South Pole. In fact, even without Julia’s allegations in the following scene, we will probably still wonder about the someone or something Simon is running to or away from in Antarctica. And rather than being out of the loop, we readers are now fairly chomping at the bit to know more. Job done!