Monday, June 24, 2013

Creating Tension (Sexual or Otherwise)

If you take all my how-to blog posts, all the material I've read and recommended on the craft of fiction, and boil them down, two themes crop up time and again:

1. Tension is reader currency.
2. A good story is all about making the reader feel.

But how do you actually deliver feelings to a reader?

I've written in the past about grounding the melodramatic in the mundane in order to make fictional events believable.

We've also covered how to show instead of tell, keeping your own author voice out of your character narration, and a bunch of other techniques.

In all of these I mention how crucial it is not to dilute tension. Or how you should focus on placing the reader inside the skin (and behind the eyes) of the focal character.

But once you've eradicated the obstacles and grounded the reader in the character, how do you actually go about delivering the kind of tension that keeps the reader dying to turn the next page?
Answer: Sense stimulus.

See, I figured out last year that the books that grabbed my attention and kept me pointed at the page like a drug dog on a meth rock had something in common:

They didn't tell me how to feel or what to sense, they just gave me the stimulus and let my brain do the rest.

What that means is, if the main characters saw a beautiful sunset, the sunset was described in color and ambience (visual senses), the characters physical reaction was described (touch, taste, physical feeling), then the author continued with the story. In other words, instead of waxing lyrical about how romantic or inspiring the character found the sunset to be, the author just painted the picture and then painted the characters reacting to that beauty. The inspiration or awe was implied by their reaction.
The reader was never told how to interpret the stimulus. But the reader felt the feelings the characters had because the author knew how to paint the picture in a way that drew out a visceral reaction.
Another example is a good sex scene. (Don't worry! I'm not going to write one here!). The best and most titillating scenes don't tell the reader in blunt terms how the characters are feeling. The best scenes describe what is happening and how the character's body is reacting to that stimulus.
In this way, the reader is left to experience the story, rather than learn about it.

Resist the urge to feel like you need to draw the reader along, to ensure that they understand what the character is thinking or saying and why. If you give the body the right stimulus, the brain tells the reader's body how that would feel.

The reader then instinctively understands why the character is acting in that way, because it's a plausible response to the feelings.


So, next time you want your reader in tears, or brimming with anticipation, or gagging for contact with the hero...identify the stimulus. Describe it and the five-senses reaction to it. Then move on.
The reader will come with you. I promise.
Your Turn: Do you have any questions? If not, share a favorite passage from a book that evokes emotion in you. Which senses does it use?


  1. Tension is so,so,so important. I've been watching Korean Drama's becasue they do tension so well and they drag it out for 16 episodes. I'll still trying to figure out how to bottle that and put it in my novels, but practice makes perfect, right?

    1. Yes! But if you figure out a formula please let me know! :)