Tension Keeps Readers Turning Pages

Writing teachers often say there should be “conflict” in every scene. There’s a problem with this, because too many writers think this means everyone always has to be arguing with everyone else. As if no two characters can ever agree on anything.

There’s a difference between conflict and tension. We talked about that before, in the plot section.

In terms of Pacing, tension has a different use:

Tension is appropriate to genre and keeps reader turning pages.

That note “appropriate to genre” is important. A romance novel does not need to have a huge amount of tension. There can be some scenes that are just sweet, because that’s important in a romance novel. Tension in a romance novel can come from the character’s own insecurities.

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A fantasy or science fiction novel can have a scene that just explores and establishes the storyworld, without having the fate of the universe hanging in the balance—yet. Tension in speculative fiction can come from a character being removed from his everyday life and thrust into new cultures he’s unfamiliar with.

But a mystery or thriller? Yeah, you better have tension in nearly every scene. Once in a while you can tone it down to give the reader a breather—usually right before you send them off on the next death-defying chase. Tension in a thriller usually comes from the hero’s shortcomings—real or perceived—in solving the story problem.

You notice none of these tension points involves the villain or an argument with the romantic partner. That’s because those things aren’t tension. They’re conflict. Put those in, too, as appropriate. Except the romantic arguments. Let’s go easy on those, okay?
What’s key is to keep the reader moving forward. You need a combination of conflict and tension to make that happen. But often, the key to writing a page-turner is the tension.

In Writing in Obedience, Terry Burns and Linda Yezak share a great tip. This had a huge effect on my writing—so much that I wished I had read this before I turned in the final manuscript for Alara’s Call.

Burns advises against tying your scenes up neatly. Leave something unfinished—some action or thought incomplete. That will push the reader forward.

If there are convenient places to put the book down to go do something else, that is a problem, and we ought to fix it. Nice neat little endings on scenes can be just such places.—Terry Burns

So examine your scene endings. Can you delete a line or two from the bottom and leave the reader at a point of tension? Then do.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Yep, that book cover is an Amazon affiliate link, which means if you click on it and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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