You’ve developed a plot and created your characters. Now, for the hard part: you have to make your readers care. As your characters begin their story and live out the plot you’ve created, there must be tension in your writing. You don’t simply want your plot to move forward. You want it to build naturally to its tipping point, or climax, keeping readers invested all the while.
The good news is, if you’ve thoroughly developed your characters—their desires, defining traits, and motivations—you already have a good base for building tension. Mary Kole in Writing Irresistible Kidlit defines tension as your character’s objectives and core identities coming in conflict with the real world. It is the feeling of want, of need, of injustice, of confusion, or the sensation that things aren’t how they should be. There are many ways that an author can build tension in a story (which I’ll circle back to later) but only one that a story can’t do without: conflict.
Conflict can be either internal or external. Internal conflict is a character’s own struggle in his mind with his identity or life in general, often in reaction to events in the plot. External conflict is conflict between two characters or between a character and an aspect of society. A good story will have both. The characters will encounter issues that challenge their values, assumptions, or even identity, causing disruption internally, while external conflict is taking place in the larger plot.
Kole highlights setting up stakes by building up the importance of things, people, and events. Understand what’s important to your character and why. Then, use those stakes to feed into the crucial decisions (usually laden with internal conflict) that your characters must make to achieve their objective in the story. Stakes, conflict, and character development should always be interacting with one another, slowly building until the story comes to a climax.
However, Kole also points out that conflict and high stakes aren’t the only way to build tension. There are also more subtle tricks of craft that can build tension in your story. A writer can make descriptions of the external environment mirror internal tension, for example. Tension can be built by withholding information from the reader, teasing them with just enough of the available information to want more. Tension can even be found in something as simple as the sentence structures if the author adjusts the rhythm of her writing to reflect the emotion of the scene. For example, short, choppy sentences create a feeling of danger.
So, what really matters for building tension in a story? Good character development and careful writing. If readers understand your characters values and desires, they will also feel tension begin to build as those things are challenged or tested by events of the plot. Careful use of imagery, background information, and sentence structure are also key to heightening tense moments in the story. Once you have those elements, the only thing left to do is let your character struggle with the internal and external conflict created in your plot.