How to grip your readers and hold them to your novel

One force that pulls agents, publishers and readers into your novel is tension. Usually that can be generated with good characterisation, but a compelling plot can have a tension all of its own. Dan Brown is a master of that one.

Woah!
Woah! What’s gonna happen next?

Tension doesn’t happen by itself. It works itself into all sorts of levels in writing. In fiction it happens in the general plot. It happens in the characterisations and dialogue. It happens in the writing style. They don’t all have to be present – witness Brown, whose characters at best were cardboard caricatures. Yet his stories were compelling. Why? Because he had the technique for creating plot tension down pat.

There are many ways to create tension for the reader – meaning, something that draws them on, be it only to the next sentence. Many such techniques need to be applied into writing to keep it lively. Here are a few.

1. Writing style
A. E. Van Vogt had a system of writing ‘hook words’, typically an adverb that seemed mis-placed but which created a sense of mystery. I could see the logic – he was trying to pull readers into the next sentence. I was never a fan of this system, because it created styling contrivances, but it does seem to work for some authors.

2. Micro-plot structure
Each scene in a story, or sequence in non-fiction, needs to have its own driving tension. There does not just have to be a reason why scenes play out as they do; there also has to be a thread to them –something that will, in some small or large way, create anticipation.

3. Macro-plot structure
The entire story needs broad dynamic tension to pull readers through. This is true of fiction and non-fiction. Think of it as those rods of twisted steel. You have to be able to wind it up across the span of the book.

4. Character interaction
Much of the tension in a novel – at all these levels – comes from the way characters clash. It doesn’t mean characters argue in every dialogue, but there needs to be a tension– a dissonance of goals.

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If you want to know more about ways to write – methods and techniques for getting up to speed and writing that book fast – check out my short quick-start manual How to get writing… fast. Available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


4 thoughts on “How to grip your readers and hold them to your novel

  1. All good tips. I like to ask myself what a character wants in a scene and what’s going to stand in his/her way of getting it. Putting up a barrier to the goal helps me add tension to each scene.

    1. Great addition to a wonderfully pragmatic post! Your tip also describes so many of my evenings plotting to nab the remote… the want=foodnetwork… the barrier=a stubborn viking man with Thor’s lightning reflexes

      But “dissonance of goals” keeps the life in both our writing and our far less literary battles lol

      1. Clash of dissonances in general is a great way to build tension into writing. There’s direct comparison with music – stuff that just plonks along is boring, but if you build dissonant time signatures or harmonies into it, suddenly it gets attention (and often, the listener doesn’t quite know why – which is great). Writing should be able to do that too… the hard part is actually writing stuff that achieves it… (‘we are all apprentices’, as my favourite literary stylist once remarked…)

    2. That’s exactly it – the characters have to either drive the tension or be engaged with it on the ‘I’ll learn something that changes me’ level required of a story arc. Stories where contrived ‘events’ drive tension risk falling into melodrama.

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