Posted by: nancycurteman | August 18, 2010

9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel

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Killer IdeasWhat keeps a reader turning pages in a mystery novel? Tension. A good mystery writer incites worry, stress, anxiety, pressure, apprehension and conjecture in the minds of h/er readers.  These are the feelings mystery fans expect to experience when reading a gripping story. Tension is what readers want. Here are 8 ways to imbue your novel with tension:

1. Ignite the reader’s curiosity beginning on page one and continue to keep them questioning throughout the novel. How? By making statements that require further explanation, by creating problems that require solutions, and by foreshadowing crisis.

2. To enkindle anxiety in the reader, create a sympathetic character. Readers want good things to happen to an appealing character. You want your reader to continually worry and fret about bad things happening to the character so…put that character in major and minor jeopardy repeatedly throughout the book.

3. Be clear about what it is your protagonist wants. The thing the character wants can be something small, but he has to want it badly. Your job is to show how he attempts to achieve it, and then have someone or something  throw obstacles in his way.

4. Build more tension by showing the characters inner responses and how those responses motivate his reactions to the obstacles.

5. Create several mini-conflicts that increase the protagonist’s problems.

6. Give your protagonist some successes, but immediately have him encounter greater obstacles. The obstacles should escalate to a final, breathtaking climax. Throughout the novel your reader needs to worry about whether the character will ever succeed.

7. Actions and reactions are the building blocks of a mystery plot. As each character creates an obstacle for the other, both the protagonist and the antagonist must escalate their reactions to them.

8. Pose questions either directly or by implication.  These don’t have to be big questions. Keep in mind that the smaller questions keep the reader wondering and turning pages. The two big questions in a mystery are “whodunnit?” and “what will happen next?”

9. Don’t answer questions immediately. Stretch the solutions and increase reader curiosity/tension. However, the greater number of pages between when a question is posed and when it’s answered is important. Quick answers—small surprise. Answers that take many chapters to answer must have a big surprise.

In order for a reader to experience tension while reading a mystery novel, each chapter must have some level of crisis that creates conflict.

Read more post on the craft of writing:

4 Do’s and Don’ts of  “Show, Don’t Tell.”
How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel?
How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story?
How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel
Pacing: A Critical Element in the Mystery Novel
What is Literary Style?
What is Theme in Literature?
7 Murder Weapons That Will Challenge The Cleverest Sleuth
7 Characteristics of Today’s Modern Mystery Novels
Developing Characters is No Mystery
Author’s Voice: How to find it?

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Responses

  1. Yet more good tips. Thanks. Waiting with bated breath for the E-book. :-)

  2. Thanks for the encouragement to write an e-book. I’m not sure how to do it, but it might be interesting to research a bit.

  3. Writing an eBook is simple, really. You just put your info into a PDF format, add some graphics, save the file, and offer it on line. ))

    I agree with Carolyn, by the way.

    • Hey Richard, As always, thanks for your sage advice.

  4. I love this blog! Every day there is more and more great advice. Thank you! Saffy. xx

    • Thanks for your comment. I checked out your blog. Very interesting. I didn’t see a blog roll. Do you have one?

    • Thanks for your comment. I checked out your blog. Very interesting. I didn’t see a blog roll. Do you have one?

  5. An ebook is a brilliant idea. Count me in.

  6. Excellent tips, Nancy.

  7. Thank you for your suggestions on how to create tension. I surely agree that there must be tension and questions in the mind of the reader in a mystery novel. This is the genre that I enjoy. What’s going to happen next and who done it keeps me reading. In my novel who done it is known to the reader but not the characters and the crime is in progress.

    • When the reader knows who did the dastardly deed and the characters don’t, that makes tremendous tension.

  8. I especially like how you point out waiting a long time for a small surprise is a bad thing. Readers get disappointed and frustrated that way.

    I always look to lack of desire in characters when tension lags, but now I have this great list to work from to attack the problem from all angles. Thanks.

  9. Lack of desire on the part of the protagonist can be disastrous in a mystery.

  10. […] 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.” How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a Mystery Novel? How Important is Conflict in a Mystery Story? How to Create Minor Characters in Your Mystery Novel Pacing: A Critical Element in the Mystery Novel What is Literary Style? What is Theme in Literature? 7 Murder Weapons That Will Challenge The Cleverest Sleuth 7 Characteristics of Today’s Modern Mystery Novels Developing Characters is No Mystery Author’s Voice: How to find it? […]

  11. […] 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel […]

  12. […] 10 things a Mystery Writer Should Know 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.” How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a […]

  13. […] 10 things a Mystery Writer Should Know 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t Tell.” How Do Conflict and Crisis Differ in a […]

  14. […] 10 things a Mystery Writer Should Know 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel 4 Do’s and Don’ts of  ”Show, Don’t […]

  15. thanks for the help!!! needed it for my new story

    • Dawn, Good luck on your story. I visited your site. Very nice.

      • Thank you so much!

  16. I contemplate precisely why you labeled this particular
    article, “9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel | Global Mysteries” whitemoonrecordings .
    No matter what I personally adored the article!

    Thanks a lot,Marian

    • Hi Marian, I’m glad you enjoyed blog post. Just out of curiosity, what do you think might be a better label?
      Best,
      Nancy

  17. I have had an idea for a book, every time i sit down to write, time runs short.. I would love to have time to write.. Thank you for the article.

    • I know exactly what you mean. I can never figure out where the time goes. I wake up at 7:00 and turn around and it’s 11:00 pm, time to go back to bed. Why don’t you just sit down for ten minutes and write one sentence about your book idea. Some is better than none.

  18. […] 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel
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  19. […] 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel Interior Dialogue: A Great Tool for Mystery Writers Dialogue: Body Language Communicates More Than Words […]

  20. […] 9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel
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    • Hello Stefan, I hope you enjoyed reading my post, 9 Ways to create Tension in a Mystery Novel.


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