Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Four Types of Dramatic Tension – Part Two

In my last post I discussed the necessity of creating tension on every page of your manuscript. We learned that in the world of drama, there are four types of tension used to engage the audience:

  1. The tension of relationships
  2. The tension of the task
  3. The tension of surprise
  4. The tension of mystery

We then explored the first type of tension in-depth, using the bestselling novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett as our example. If you missed it, click here to catch up.

Today we’ll move on to the remaining three types of tension. Once again we’ll use Stockett’s novel for illustrative purposes. This is for two reasons. Firstly, because I want to demonstrate how even a “quiet” genre like women’s fiction can be made to crackle with tension on every page. And secondly, because it’s easy enough to pull examples of the different types of tension from any novel you could name – but it’s far more helpful to see how one author has incorporated the various tools into one book.

Because that’s the whole idea, isn’t it? – to vary the techniques we use to create tension, and then layer them one on top of the other in order to produce the most wildly compelling read possible.

1.             The tension of the task
Give your hero or heroine something to accomplish, then set obstacles in their way. A ticking clock adds urgency – so create a deadline for the protagonist to accomplish their goal.

In The Help, Skeeter’s central task is to compile a book of stories about the lives of black maids in the South. The author skilfully ratchets up the tension surrounding this task in incremental steps:

   -  An editor tells Skeeter she needs at least a dozen more women to participate in the project or she won’t be interested, but Skeeter has trouble persuading more than two maids to help.
   -  The editor wants the book finished as soon as possible in order to coincide with external political events. This puts Skeeter on a tight deadline.
   -  The women who eventually agree to share their stories are putting their lives at risk, a fact illustrated by a series of explosive racial events.
   -  Just as it’s looking possible for Skeeter to complete the task in time, the editor informs her that she will need the book a whole month ahead of schedule.

           2.             The tension of surprise
This tool is an invaluable fix for those sagging moments in your manuscript. A manuscript sags when it becomes predictable – when the reader feels they already know what’s coming, only it’s taking far too long to get there.

These are the moments you want to shake things up a bit and turn the reader’s expectations on their head. Often a surprise is used as a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter.

Examples are:
- A plot twist we didn’t see coming.
- A new reveal of information.
- A shot of humor in the middle of a bleak situation.
- The appearance of an unexpected character.
- A crisis or major event that catches us by surprise.
- A character who does something unpredictable, even shocking.

Kathryn Stockett keeps us guessing throughout the The Help by springing several unexpected surprises. Here’s one example:

All the way through the book, Skeeter’s friend Hilly is on her case to include a racist “Home Sanitation initiative” in the newsletter Skeeter edits. Skeeter won’t do it. Then at the end of Chapter 21, after an explosive confrontation with Hilly, we see Skeeter finally typing the initiative:

“I place it on the second page, opposite the photo ops. This is where everyone will be sure to see it… All I can think while I’m typing is, What would Constantine think of me?”

End of chapter.

The reader is taken by surprise. This is the last thing we would expect Skeeter to do. It goes against everything we’ve come to know about her character. What is going on? Has she finally caved to the pressure? Will the antagonist, Hilly Holbrook, win out after all? This can’t be happening!

You can bet most readers will be flipping forward to find out what on earth has come over our beloved Skeeter. Of course, in the next chapter, the author has another surprise waiting for us as we learn what Skeeter is really up to.

4. The tension of mystery
A mystery is any unanswered question you place in your reader’s mind. These questions are what keep your readers turning pages. Often there is a central question or mystery that runs throughout a whole book, with the final reveal left for the climax.

The underlying mystery in The Help is the single question – what happened to Skeeter’s beloved maid Constantine? At the beginning of the story, Constantine disappears and Skeeter is told she quit. But Skeeter can’t believe that the woman who raised her from childhood would vanish without a word of farewell or a letter of explanation. It’s not until the end of the novel that we find out what really happened to Constantine.

Other, more secondary mysteries, are used to tease and draw us further into the story. What was the “Terrible Awful” that Minny did to her ex-employer? What is in the bottles Celia Foote hides in her closet? And why is there a bloodstain on the carpet of her bedroom, concealed beneath a rug?

The trick here is to tantalise the reader by raising questions and then not answering them straight away. It’s a delicate line to walk – you want to keep the thread alive by referring to it here and there so the reader doesn’t forget about it and lose interest; but you also don’t want to hold all your cards too tightly until the end, or the device can become irritating and you’ll frustrate the reader.

Some mysteries should be revealed along the way. With the central mystery, it’s enough to drop hints or clues so the reader feels some sense of progression and an increasing hunger to learn the truth.

So there you have it – the four types of dramatic tension.

Most of you will find you already use these four types of tension instinctively. But being aware of what you’re doing – and why – is the first step toward strengthening your writing. Perhaps you favor one type of tension at the expense of the others. Perhaps there are one or two tension-producing tools listed here that you know are lacking in your novel. Why not try to weave them in and create some extra layers of conflict in your story?

Let’s talk: What types of tension do you naturally favor, and which do you think you could use more effectively?

Image courtesy of

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after two small boys, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website, on Twitter or getting creative over at her mummy blog.


Unknown said...

This is so good! Tension is a must to keep me turning pages. I think possibly the easiest for me is tension of the task...if I give my character something to do in every single scene, a goal, then all I have to do is throw in an obstacle and we're good to go. :) Well, I am...the character, not so much.

Jeanne T said...

This post is a keeper, Karen. Thanks so much for giving specific examples of the different kinds of tension. Having read The Help, it enable me to see what you're talking about!

Like Melissa,I think the easiest type of tension is the tension of task. I'm still figuring it out, but it's easier for me to add tension there than to add surprise. I need to work on this one! :) Thanks for the ideas and descriptions you've given today!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Excellent post, Karen!

My favorite type of tension is romantic tension! LOL.

But second to that, I tend to love surprises - both good and bad. And of course, secrets are great at adding tension. The reader is dying to know what the character is hiding and keeps reading to find out!

Great info! Thanks for sharing.


Julia M. Reffner said...

Awesome post! Stockett did a fantastic job with all these types of tension and when I saw surprise, exactly what you referred to came to mind. She does a great job of using tension and humor simultaneously. Something that I would love to be able to do well.

Casey said...

This is an absolute gem of a post! I just watched The Help last weekend, so now I know what everyone is talking about. ;-)

This is great for me right now as I'm trying to brainstorm "tasks" for my heroine without her doing the same thing over and over again. ;)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Melissa and Jeanne - yes, tension of the task comes most naturally to a lot of people. Maybe because it gives us the building blocks of the story. Like you said, Melissa, it's the same thing as giving your heroine a goal and an obstacle. Good observation!

Sue - romantic tension is VERY powerful! That would come under the "tension of relationships". There's nothing like it to keep a reader racing through the pages.

Julia - I know, combining tension and humour is such an art! I find that really difficult as well!

Casey - Oh, I loved the movie!! I bawled, of course... :-) I find it hard to give my character a goal/ task in every scene, but it helps if there's a central goal she's working toward that runs all the way through the story. Then each mini-task either moves her closer to or further from her goal.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

My personal favourite is the tension of mystery. I love raising unanswered questions, right from the first page. I'm such a tease. :-)

hilda dada said...
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Sarah Forgrave said...

Wow, this is such a meaty post, Karen. (And suddenly I'm craving a slice of bacon. :)) My fabulous critique partner, Alley Cat Krista, is a master of putting those surprise hooks at the end of a chapter. Just when I think I can set aside a critique, bam, she throws something unexpected in there. :)