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7 Ways to Add an Undercurrent of Tension

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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Cliff-hangers and nail-biters aren’t the only ways to keep readers turning pages. When you develop their inherent conflict, quieter, almost insignificant-seeming moments can successfully produce an itch in your reader that only reading on will effectively scratch.

Here are some of the many ways that can be achieved.

1. Someone fakes it

From the time we are born, we are acculturated in a way that allows us to function in a family (don’t bite your brother, even if you want to) and in society (don’t bite your neighbor or sleep with his wife, even if you want to). Showing our characters “faking it” to override baser urges adds layers of interest to our characters by raising questions about why they might be doing that.

In Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, our protagonist, Pat, is trying to control a tendency toward violent outburst that caused a need for an institutionalized “apart time” from the locus of his all-consuming affection, Nikki. Pat is grooming himself for winning Nikki back through a maniacal devotion to exercise and adherence to optimistic platitudes learned from his friend Danny at a locked psychiatric facility. In this scene, back home in Philadelphia and released to his mother’s care, Pat is seeing his brother for the first time in three years.

You look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.” He feels my bicep, which I absolutely hate because I don’t like to be touched by anyone except Nikki. Since he’s my brother, I don’t say anything. “You’re frickin’ ripped,” he adds.

I look at the floor, because I remember what he said about Nikki—I am still mad about that—and yet I am also happy to see my brother after not seeing him for what feels like forever.

“Listen, Pat. I should have come to see you more in Baltimore, but those places freak me out and I…I…I just couldn’t see you like that, okay? Are you mad at me?”

I am sort of still mad at Jake, but suddenly I remember another one of Danny’s lines that is too appropriate to leave unsaid, so I say, “Got nothin’ but love for ya.”

That Pat feels both anger and love, simultaneously, is the kind of inner conflict that makes him seem real. It also makes the scene buzz with tension. We’ve already experienced a scene in which Pat tears up his psychiatrist’s office because Kenny G came on the radio. Here, when he must quote a friend to clamp down on his true feelings, the reader wonders: Will his desire to end apart time from Nikki be enough to keep him in line, or is Pat once again going to blow?


2. The setting exudes conflict

In these passages from Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, a bright student named Elwood is catching his first glimpse of the reform school he’s been sentenced to for a crime he didn’t commit.

He expected stone walls and barbed wire, but there were no walls at all. The campus was kept meticulously, a bounty of lush green dotted with two-and three-story buildings of red brick. The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest-looking school Elwood had ever seen…

Huh. The reader sits forward: what’s going on here? Soon Elwood arrives at his assigned dormitory, the one reserved for Black students.

Cleveland was identical to the other dormitories on the campus: Nickel brick under a green copper roof, surrounded by box hedges that clawed out of the red soil. Blakely took Elwood through the front door and it was swiftly clear that outside was one thing and inside was another. The warped floors creaked incessantly and the yellow walls were scuffed and scratched. Stuffing dribbled from the couches and armchairs in the recreation room. Initials and epithets marked the tables, gouged by a hundred mischievous hands.

From box hedges that claw from red soil to mischievous epithets, this lively setting begs interest. All is not as it would first appear.


3. Description evokes emotion

This example is from creative nonfiction but the technique could well be used in a novel—in fact, this reads as one. This is from Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande.

The patient needed a central line. ”Here’s your chance,” S., the chief resident, said. I had never done one before. “Get up and then page me when you’re ready to start.”

It was my fourth week in surgical training. The pockets of my white coat bulged with patient printouts, laminated cards with instructions for doing CPR and using the dictation system, two surgical handbooks, a stethoscope, wound-dressing supplies, meal tickets, a penlight, scissors, and about a buck in loose change. As I headed up the stairs to the patient’s floor, I rattled.

Because this passage was rendered in the first person, Gawande had access to the clenching of his character’s jaws and the churning of his stomach, yet he intuited a better way to gain his reader’s emotional involvement. After using the contents of the white coat to evoke the heavy burden of all that this young doctor needs to know, he writes, “I rattled”; we read, “he was rattled.”

Would you want to read on? I would. Yet all that’s happened is that the doctor walked up a staircase.


4. Desire goes unfulfilled

Okay, the subhead already made you think of always-useful sexual tension, so I’ll use a different example. In Kathleen Basi’s debut, A Song for the Road, Miriam placates herself after the death of her teenage daughter by thinking that she has surely done right by her children. How she’s treated her husband, Teo, is another story:

But she’d always cherished a little regret for the life that could have been. How could Teo compete with that? Teo, who had always greeted her with a kiss and a hug, while she responded with a stream of logistics and scheduling conundrums. Teo, who’d come home every few days with some inexpensive token of affection. She’d never managed to offer him more than a semi-clean house and a good meal.

Feels a bit like a warning rumble before an earthquake, doesn’t it? As Miriam begins her story journey, alone, we wonder what will happen with that husband.


5. Motives are questioned

In Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, the Major is speaking on the phone to the wife of his recently deceased brother. She has just told him that the funeral will be on Tuesday.

It seemed good for most people,” Marjorie said on her second call. Jemima has her evening class on Mondays and Wednesdays and I have a bridge tournament on Thursday night.”

“Bertie would want you to carry on,” the Major replied, feeling a slight acid tone creep into his voice. He was sure the funeral had also been scheduled around available beauty appointments. She would want to make sure her stiff wave of yellow hair was freshly sculpted and her skin toned or waxed—or whatever she did to achieve a face like stretched leather.

Who are we learning more about here—the Major, or Marjorie? Even a question like that can pull the reader forward. And did you notice the names? The Major and Marjorie, same but different. Early on, the reader senses that Marjorie will be a worthy antagonist.


6. A mind-body disconnect

In Kate Allen’s A Fear of Flying, the man sitting beside her anxious protagonist, a stranger currently referred to as “Window Seat,” says:

As an engineer, I feel like I have some kind of civic duty to let you know air travel is completely safe.”

She’s heard it all and read it all before. She hates when people say this. “Until it isn’t.” She means to say it only to herself, but it comes out through her lips anyway. She immediately regrets speaking it, for her own sake. Now, she’s shattered her own illusion of safety that she’s been struggling to construct. “I mean, I know that, but it’s like my body doesn’t.” she continues after a moment.

Unwanted words that fly from a mouth. A shattered illusion. A body that won’t behave. This woman’s in trouble, and we want to know more.


7. Evasive dialogue

This common technique is a hallmark in young adult fiction, which is rife with characters trying to sort themselves out. In Erica George’s dual-timeline debut, Words Composed of Sea and Sky, historical character Leta finds a place to collect herself after other party-goers learn that she was dancing, outdoors and unchaperoned, with a young sea captain who stirs her deeply. Her heart has barely regained normal rhythm when another young man, the one she considers her best friend, catches up to her.

I’m fine, Elijah,” I say before he can ask. And I am. I’ve never been better. I don’t need Elijah to chase after me like some puppy, making sure I’m not pretending to be stronger than I am. “I simply need a moment without those knowing eyes on me.”

“Leta,” he says again. “I wanted to dance with you.”

If I keep talking, maybe we won’t have to have this conversation. Maybe I won’t have to own up to the slight I gave him—he who has never let me down.

“And it could be the last time I get an opportunity. Because I’m leaving.”

I freeze in place. “What do you mean, you’re leaving? Who will tend to the lighthouse?”

“I’ve joined the Union Army, Leta.”

Pretending. Trampling on social mores. Assuming. Admitting shame over a slight. Then, a plot twist that puts her feelings to the test. There’s so much going on in this short passage that it’s no wonder this was a page-turner.

If any of these techniques made you want to read on, why not put your own novel to the test? Devote a revision draft to the review of your novel’s quieter moments and see if you can find a way to amp up the undercurrent of tension in your scenes.

If you try one of these techniques on a passage and like the results, please share it with us! Have you ever noticed other ways that authors keep tension alive, even without a major plot point unfolding? Tell us about them.


About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.


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