What is Tension in a mystery novel? Tension is that element in a novel that evokes emotions such as worry, anxiety, fear and stress on the part of both the reader and the characters in a novel. Bill Johnson provides a great analogy that emphasizes the importance of tension: “…tension can be compared to an electrical current that runs through a story. The weaker the current, the less a story transmits to an audience. The greater the current, the greater the involvement of an audience.”
At first the idea of tension seems a bit abstract. We all know it when we experience it, but putting the definition of tension into words requires some thought. Let’s look at a few of the attributes of tension. Tension is
• anticipation of conflict. The reader and the characters know a problem is on the horizon.
• changes that impact the novel’s characters. Changes that become more dire as the story progresses. No sooner is one obstacle conquered than another one crops up.
• a series of unexpected events or revelations. Often the events surprise the reader and the protagonist. Sometimes the reader knows about the event but the character doesn’t. This adds to reader tension.
• torment. The protagonist must suffer both internal and external agony. The obstacles your character has to face must continually increase in difficulty until he’s pushed to his absolute limits.
• secrets. Character must have needs, painful past experiences and skeletons in his closet that precipitate his reaction to events.
• dialogue. Not just idle conversation, but as Morrell puts it, “…conversation’s greatest hits.” Dialogue that is a power struggle where there is a winner and a loser.
• subtext. Unspoken thoughts, fears, anger and motives of characters—what they really think, feel and believe.
• ebbs and flows. There needs to be variations in the levels of tension throughout the story in order for readers to relax and prepare for the next jolt of stress they’ll experience.
• a sense of urgency. If the protagonist does not act soon they are doomed.
These are some of the attributes of tension. The author’s job is to figure out how to produce them in her story.
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