Quick, think of the last book you read where you couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. A book you read where you couldn’t stand to put it down because you HAD to know what was going on or if your main character was going to be okay.
I bet you didn’t have a hard time thinking of a book because those books are the ones that stick with us. We remember them because they held power over us. We couldn’t do anything else until the tension eased up, even if that meant we had to finish the entire book!
Don’t underestimate the importance of tension in your work. Along with great characters, an interesting plot, a cool setting – ask yourself, what can I do to add tension into my story?
I want to share with you something I’ve done in my YA novels to date. I like to add what I call “the mysterious element.” That is, a question that I purposefully leave unanswered. The key here is you have to be careful, because if it’s something TOO big, or too important, your reader will get frustrated with you. Make sure you do it in a way that serves the story well, where it works not to have that information revealed until later.
In my first YA novel, I Heart You, You Haunt Me, Ava is grieving over the death of her boyfriend, Jackson. She also feels incredibly guilty over his death. As the story proceeds, she doesn’t say how he died. Soon, he comes back as a ghost, and she isn’t scared to see him, but glad, and yet, the reader still doesn’t know what happened to him. So the plot goes along, and you are watching this strange relationship between Ava and her ghost of a boyfriend play out, and underneath all of that is the tension that’s created with the question – how did he die and why does she feel guilty? Eventually, at a crucial moment in the story, all is revealed. It comes at a point when Ava is perhaps ready to start figuring out what she needs to do to get over that guilt.
I could have shared how Jackson died right away. It would have been easy to do that. But it wasn’t a crucial detail for the reader to have, and by waiting, it added tension to the story that made it even harder for the reader to put the book down. And the moment it’s revealed becomes this really powerful moment in the book. It’s like this turning point for Ava, so revealing it then really means something.
In my most recent novel, The Day Before, the main character, Amber, runs off to the beach to spend the day by herself. The reader quickly learns something big is about to happen the next day, and I give clues as to what is going on, but it takes a little while for that to be revealed. In this case, I knew I couldn’t go too long before the reader would get frustrated. So I withheld the information as long as I thought I could, and then it’s revealed, so the reader can relate better to Amber and what she’s going through.
Here’s the thing, though. If you tie up one thread that was causing tension, make sure you bring in a new thread. Amber meets Cade, and she soon realizes something is going on with him too, but he doesn’t want to tell her. So not only is Amber wondering what’s going on, the reader is too! And just like that, more tension is added in.
Adding in a mysterious element can do great things to your novel. Choose your element wisely, and don’t dangle it in front of your reader all the time or you’ll make her mad. Let it sit in the background most of the time, quietly left unanswered, while the plot continues forward, and reward your reader with the secret at just the right time.
Lisa Schroeder writes books for kids and teens. When she’s not writing, she loves walking her dog, Stormy, baking yummy treats, reading (of course), and watching her favorite TV shows (Vampire Diaries, Project Runway, Grey’s Anatomy, to name a few). Find her on Figment at: http://figment.com/users/43907-Lisa-Schroeder.