Tension is one of the basic tools of a mystery writer. Tension comes in small and large doses. An example of a small dose is the worry created by starting a new job, meeting a blind date. A large dose might be the terror created by waking in the middle of the night to the sound of the murderer in the house who had threatened your life a number of times. Both levels of tension are needed in a mystery novel. The strategies for creating tension are the same for both levels. It’s simply a matter of degree. Here are some strategies to build tension in your novel.
• Begin the novel with an incident that ignites reader curiosity. In a mystery, it is often a dead body.
• Make the protagonist’s ultimate happiness, safety or well-being depend on the outcome of his efforts. He must find his brother’s killer and bring him to justice or he will never be able to live with himself.
•Ignite the reader’s curiosity by making statements that require further explanation, by creating problems that require solutions, and by foreshadowing crisis.
• Give your character secrets and weaknesses that will be exposed or confronted as she follows the clues that lead to the murderer. Even though she always feared being out alone at night, she has to go to her friend who has telephoned her from a lonely street where her kidnapper dumped her. A miserable first marriage has made it impossible for her to ever consider another relationship.
• Torment your character with changes that impact him both internally and externally. Her mother would never forgive her if she turned evidence against her own sister over to the police? The beating left him unable to crawl up to the road for help.
• Create several mini-conflicts that increase the protagonist’s problems. Add a family or romantic conflict. Perhaps an issue involving religious or cultural values.
• Dialogue can feature arguments, complaining and head games. Use tense dialogue that contains lots of short sentences and sentence fragments. Pepper it with subtext and interior dialogue. “It’s great to see you.” She thought she was rid of him. How did he find her?
• Provide a major reversal or surprise in the middle of the novel. Could be a second murder.
• Use pacing to increase suspense. Slow pacing by adding details to build suspense.
• Make the consequences for failure terrible. She must get there before the kidnapper gives up and kills his victim.
• Withhold information from the reader until the last moment?
If you want to keep the reader reading, you must take every opportunity to build tension in your novel.