By Hannah Green

How do you create that nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat page-turner? How do best-selling authors create tension in their writing? Here are seven tips to help you keep your reader gasping for more.


(1) Name the stakes

How much does your character have to lose? Make it clear to your reader what is at stake, and show them how and why your protagonist is doing what needs to be done.

Imagine that your protagonist is a tightrope walker: is he balanced on the rope with a safety net to catch him if he falls, or is the rope strung between two high-rise buildings where falling means certain death? The latter has obviously raised the stakes to an unsettling level.

(2) Shorten the Time Limit

Do your characters have ten months or ten hours to solve the problem?

Don’t prolong your time frame just so that you can add more detail to a complicated plot. Events that take place over an extended period of time can lose their impact and detract from the pacing of your story. The less time there is for your character to achieve their goal, the more difficult it becomes for them.

(3) Under Pressure

How difficult is it to cross that tightrope? Is your character a professional tightrope walker or is she a novice who has never done this before?

Increasing the pressure that your character is under is a good way to increase the tension. Does she have the knowledge, ability and inclination to achieve the goals that you have set out for her or is she thrust into the situation against her will?

(4) External Conflict

Creating obstacles for your characters to overcome will give them more to do.

Watching a juggling act can be boring if the juggler is merely working with three balls, but watching them balance on a chair while they’re juggling six flaming knives and dodging rocks that are being thrown at them makes for an entertaining show!

(5) Internal Conflict

A hero or protagonist who is willing to risk it all for a cause without any concerns or doubts will be a flat character. A character that has uncertainties and fears about the task at hand and their own abilities will seem more real to your reader.

(6) Choices

Don’t let your character have it easy. Force them to makes decisions: create dilemmas that play on the pressure, time limit and conflicts that you have already created.

(7) Roll the Dice

Keep your readers guessing by introducing uncontrollable or unpredictable events. Add a wild card that changes the rules of the game, but play fair. Don’t cheat your reader by inventing an easy out for your character’s precarious situation or a miracle answer to their dilemma.

About the Author:

H R Green is a writer of short stories and has a passion for teaching Creative Writing. She won the 2011 SA Writers’ College Short Story Competition with her story “The Tokoloshe”. She is currently working on a PhD in English and creative writing in Chicago, USA. She completed the Short Story Writing Course at the Writers’ College in 2010.

Photo credit: flickr.com_o5com