If you haven’t read The Martian, it’s 369 pages of full-on tension. Mark Watney, the main character, faces one set-back after another as he’s fighting for his life on Mars. The stakes are pretty high; if he doesn’t get off Mars soon, he’ll die.
Weir is a master at creating tension. Just when things are finally going right for Watney, Weir pulls the rug out from under his feet. We watch as Watney perseveres through untenable disasters that would crush the rest of us. Weir keeps readers asking throughout the story, “How’s he going to get out of this one?”
It’s easy to recognize the increasing stakes in The Martian because it’s a life-or-death situation. Watney’s life depends on the outcome. What makes it a gripping read is that Weir uses internal and external conflicts to ratchet up the tension so readers keep turning the pages.
There are several handy tools you should keep in your writer’s toolbox to help you increase the tension and keep readers engaged throughout your story. Here are a few of the best.
Your conflict should matter.
It’s not about how big the conflict is, and it doesn’t have to be life-or-death. Rather, it’s about how much the conflict matters to your protagonist. It should be something he or she cares deeply about. A conflict that is the most important thing in the world to your character will keep your readers engaged. To do this, you need to figure out your character’s deepest desires and fears and use those to shape the conflict.
Create conflict between characters.
Your characters may need to work together to achieve the desired outcome, but they need to be conflicted on how best to achieve it. Think of the kind of situations that can create tension between two characters. Maybe a relationship went bad, or better yet, secrets were exposed. The more you can have your characters argue, the higher the tension in each scene.
Keep raising the stakes.
In The Martian, Weir keeps raising the stakes. Just when you think Watney has a plan figured out to help him survive and get off Mars, Weir changes the stakes until it comes down to a final plan that is sketchy at best. The pressure to make the right decision is huge, leaving readers on the edge of their seats. Your conflict doesn’t have to be life-or-death, though. You can raise the stakes by offering divergent paths to your main character that aren’t obviously right or wrong, just different with unknowable consequences.
Give your readers a breather.
You don’t want to stress them out by keeping the tension high the entire time. Give your readers time to contemplate the situation and learn more about your characters during slower paced scenes. Use the quiet times to introduce interesting questions about which your readers will want to find answers. Those questions will keep your readers engaged and draw them even further into your next tense scene. The tension should wax and wane, but it should increase exponentially in the big moments until the final climax when everything is at stake.
Use both internal and external conflicts.
It’s natural to consider ways to increase the tension through external conflicts. Readers want to know how your main character is going to finally achieve the desired outcome. But giving your protagonist internal conflicts as well deepens the tension. Get inside your character’s head and find out their deepest, darkest fears, and then use those against them. Be mean to your characters by making them face the absolute worst possible scenario. Put them in situations that truly test them at their core.
Thread tension throughout your subplots as well.
We all have multiple sources of tension in our lives. We may be fighting with our partner over money, raising children, or just what’s for dinner, while our boss gives us worthless assignments that suck the joy out of our jobs. Think about your life and the lives of those around you. What kinds of tensions are being juggled each and every day? Use those experiences to create subplots that bring in additional tension.
Give your character a major secret.
It should be something that she’s desperate not to have exposed. It could be something from her past that would change the way others see or feel about her. An excellent example is the novel Twisted by Hannah Jayne. The main character’s father is a notorious serial killer, and she’s taken on a new name and lives in a new city in the hopes that no one finds out who she really is. The entire novel is full of will-they-or-won’t-they-find-out tension.
Use your character’s internal and external conflicts to their best advantage. Bring out all of the emotions and vulnerability you can create. When readers care about what happens to your protagonist, it keeps them engaged. So be mean. If your main character suffers from abandonment issues, make sure his significant other seemingly abandons him. The more that’s at stake, the more emotions you can create. And stories are ultimately about feelings.
Let’s get a list of resources together. Give us your favorite novel below with exquisite tension that’s almost unbearable. We’ll start the list off with The Martian. Now it’s your turn.
If you enjoyed this post about writing a novel, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:
- How to Foreshadow Like Hitchcock
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Plot?
- 4 Plot Pitfalls You Need to Avoid
- The Four Drafts Your Novel Needs (and Why You Probably Won't Use a Single Word of Your First Draft!)