Colleen Thompson, RITA- nominated author of Touch of Evil, Beneath Bone Lake, Fatal Error, and Triple Exposure, gave a riveting talk at the April Romance Writers of America-San Diego meeting on building suspense in fiction. Ms. Thompson outlined five techniques to add tension to your novel:
- Emphasize polarized (opposite) character traits to heighten conflict. If your heroine is a pacifist, make the hero a warrior. If she’s a control freak, make him a rebel. This works not only for the hero/heroine dynamic, but for your main character and all your secondary characters. Think about how you can tweak your characters to polarize them more. And if you are writing romance, make your hero the “worst guy possible” for your heroine – the guy who makes her want to pull her hair out. Sparks will fly!
- Force proximity between/among conflicting characters. Once you have the right dynamic going, if you are writing a romance, make sure your characters stay together. Don’t send one of them off to Tahiti for an extended vacation. How can you keep them together? Here are some ideas: give them a reason to work together – a joint goal. Or put them in competition for that goal. Or have them fight against a common enemy, or fight together for survival. Keeping the hero and heroine together is especially important in romance – it’s hard to pull off a love story if the characters are separated for the first 100 pages.
- Figure out how to strengthen the initial conflict. Every character needs to have his own agenda – including the villain – and his own things at risk. Challenge yourself to move past black and white thinking and instead think in shades of gray. Let your characters make bad decisions and give them room to grow. Don’t be afraid to make the initial situation worse, the bad guy badder.
- Make a bad situation even worse. Once you get past the beginning and into the middle of the book, you need to up the tension even more. One trick is to shorten the fuse. If the heroine had three days to find a cure for her little sister’s rare disease, find a reason to shorten the time limit to two hours. Another trick is to blow the original goal out of the water. If the heroine’s goal was to find a woman who is a donor match for her sister, have her find the woman, only to have the woman die in her arms. And don’t forget that the middle is another place you can make the bad guy more powerful. There’s nothing like having the hero thinking he’s won, only to discover that the villain has come back, stronger than ever.
- Remind the reader of conflict during “breather” scenes. You can’t have nothing but high-tension scenes in your book: the result will be reader fatigue. You need some “breather” scenes as well – scenes where your characters react, reflect, and plan their next actions. But how do you keep your readers engaged in the conflict storyline while in the these scenes? You can use symbolism sprinkled through the scene – for example, if the character just escaped a serial killer, the symbolism of a spider waiting to pounce on his prey will not be lost on the reader. Another technique is to have the characters allude to the conflict through dialog – just a line or two, and in a context that flows naturally in the scene. A technique that may work, depending on the preferences of the editor, is to use an epigraph (relevant quote, phrase, or poem) at the beginning of the scene to keep the conflict in the mind of the reader.
Ms. Thompson’s talk certainly got me thinking about my own novel, and how I could apply these techniques. I found that I naturally use polarized character traits most of the time (regardless of whether the characters are in a romantic relationship), and that the relationships where the characters have polarized traits are the ones that far and away work the best. The ones I am having trouble with are the ones that don’t have polar opposite traits.
How about you? How do you think you could use these techniques in your novel?