One of the (almost) universal elements of storytelling is that you want your audience to want to keep reading. If the audience doesn't want to keep reading, then you've done something wrong.  


In the absence of a really good term for that, we're going to call it "Tension." Some might argue that it's the "Rising Action" of the three-act structure, but I think you can have narrative tension apart from the series of events that make up the body of your plot. 

Personally, I don't keep reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone because I want to see what Voldemort does with Harry when he catches him. I keep reading because Harry is a person engaged in schoolyard interactions with other people, and there's a natural tension any time people interact (because conflict is a real thing). 


The point is - Tension isn't about the bigger, badder plot explosions waiting around the corner. It's not about the STUFF that's happening (although you can definitely use that as a tool to increase tension if that's your style). Rather, tension is more immediate for the reader when it's coming from the interactions between characters or between your protagonist and the world they're in. Friends, siblings, traveling companions, coworkers, rivals, reluctant allies - or maybe it's the way your character deals with the government, the lack of food, the way the environment is actively trying to kill them, the deities of their world - your options are limited only by your imagination. 

In addition to using this tension to keep your readers on the hook, there's a good deal of merit to using that tension as a method for motivating your characters. A time limit is a popular tension-builder in books as well as movies, but you might also use a situation, impending event, or the fragility of a weapon or tool. The idea that the thing is limited to a quantitative set (X time, X number of uses, X occurrences) will increase the Tension as you go. 

Finally, there's the Tension and Release Cycle, which is extremely useful for maintaining tension over a prolonged experience (a full-length movie, a video game, or a novel). It's most often used in horror or thriller stories, but can also be applied in action/adventure or mystery stories. The link above will take you to an excellent video defining the use of Tension and Release in horror video games, and that principle can be applied in a wide range of places. 


Tension is the feeling of a resource (time, options, escape routes, etc.) being limited, and that limitation becoming more restrictive as time goes on (fewer options, less time, not as many ways to escape). This often serves as the lure to keep your reader/viewer interested in seeing what happens next. 

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©2020 by Eleanor Taylor.

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