4 Ways to Create Dramatic Tension

People read fiction for the story, and that story should be dramatic. Nobody wants to read about my morning routine, or my drive to the grocery store, and I don’t want to write that. But if I write about a broken family trying to come back together… yeah, there’s an audience for that.

No matter how good your setup, though, or how well-considered your story, if there’s no dramatic tension there’s really no reason to read it. Or to write it, for that matter. There are many ways to create dramatic tension in a novel, and I’ve outline four good ones below.

1. Get Your Reader To Ask Questions

You want people to become immediately involved in your story, and the way to do that is to get them to ask a question. Just one, at first. It could be about the plot, it could be about a character, it could be about a relationship between characters, but you should get them to ask that question.

For instance, you could start the story with a main character on the road, destination unknown (to the reader) but it’s clearly somewhere the main character would rather not go. Throw in an encounter with someone who recognizes the character (from where?) and knows where they’re going. Now the reader is hooked, they have to know where the character is compelled to go, and why, and what’s going to happen when she gets there.

2. Create Character Conflict

There’s an awful lot to this one, as it incorporates characterization, plot, and pacing. Conflict between your characters will (almost) always drive your story.

But it can’t be pointless conflict. The conflict has to serve the plot, and move things along. Does the conflict resolve? Well… usually. But not every time (see #3).

Family conflict is great, there’s always tension and conflict between people who’ve lived in the same household. But there can be workplace conflict too, or neighbor conflict, or business conflict. Any time one character wants something, but another character wants the same thing – and there’s only one of that thing – there’s conflict. Or if a character wants something, but another character wants the exact opposite, there’s conflict. Or, maybe the best, is when two characters want the same thing, but disagree on how to go about getting that thing. Both want world peace, but one sees that possible only through war while the other sees it possible only through peace.

3. Use Cliffhangers

This term was coined for the very old movie serials, where the hero would be literally hanging from a cliff at the end of one episode, with the promise that there was no way he could survive, but to come back next week to see if he would anyway.

You should use these within your story, as structural elements and chapter breaks. I would STRONGLY caution against cliffhangers at the end of novels, especially for main plot elements. Nothing will turn your reader against you quicker than your refusal to answer a central question you raise in their minds.

I favor cliffhangers at chapter breaks. Think of them as the button right before the commercial on a TV show. You want your reader to get a payoff from what you’ve set up so far, but you want to give them a reason to turn the page and find out what happens next.

4. Employ Dramatic Irony

I touched on this in a prior post, but dramatic irony is delicious, it’s the sizzle on the steak that is your story. Dramatic irony is that perfect situation where your reader is clued into a truth that the characters are not. Or, better yet, that one character knows but another does not.

Here’s a concrete example: remember that Futurama episode where Fry finds the fossilized remains of his dog from a thousand years before? He spends the episode wondering if he should have Seymour cloned so he can have his dog back, but ultimately decides not to, reasoning that he only knew his dog for a short time and Seymour lived a good long life after Fry disappeared. Except we, the viewers, know that Seymour spent his long life waiting for Fry to come back. (makes me cry every time)

The dramatic irony is that Fry does the right thing, by every measure. Except it’s the WRONG thing, and only we, the viewers know it.

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