We, as writers, are often looking for ways to increase the tension and the inability for readers to stop turning the page. There have been many times in my life when I have been reading a book and the story was so well written and I cared so much about the characters that I simply could not put the book down. How many books have you read that kept you up all night just so you could finish the story? How many times have you cursed at the author of any given book for encouraging you to be late to work because the book was just that good?
I guess the very first thing I think of when I think of tension is making the characters suffer. Here’s kind of a run down of my thoughts on the best way to do that.
You’d think this would be common, or that it could be remarkably easy. Increase or decrease the actual temperature of the location your characters are at. This can be so much more intense than just dropping your characters onto an ice planet. If your characters aren’t fully prepared to deal with the rigors of their environment, then the environment itself becomes a tool for tension, suspense, pain, and suffering. For instance, if your characters are on a planet with a very heavy jungle, they’re going to sweat a lot. If your character also happened to fall and scrape some skin off somewhere, the sweat would then leak down into the raw flesh and sting in a remarkably painful way, thus increasing your character’s suffering. Your characters might also be inclined to drink tons of water and tend to be very thirsty in this type of environment, which is a perfect time to introduce hazards into the water which prevent them from drinking. Bacteria, infection, flesh-eating water life. There really aren’t any limits to the ways you can use the physical environment to increase the suffering, and therefore the tension, of your story. Even stories with romantic elements can use this option to their advantage. Put your heroine in a very sexy dress and have her wait outside on the curb for a taxi in the pouring rain as she flees from the clutches of the abusive millionaire. It sounds cliché, but it also means that it’s a perfect time for the romantic interest of the story to show up and see her at her absolute worst. Her beautiful dress, clinging in ruins about her with wet maschera running like sooty tears down her face. Mud and dirt, flung up from passing vehicles as they splash liquid sewer onto the remains of her dignity. She would be cold, and wet, and utterly miserable, which would in turn make her likely to lose her temper when the romantic interest enters the scene. Those are just a few easy and quick examples of ways to make your characters physically miserable.
This category is a little bit more difficult to pin down. It’s something akin to taking away the non-physical things which make your character tick. For example, your character is a knight who loses faith, or a soldier betrayed by those in command, a best friend betrayed by the only person they trust, or someone who loses the love of their life. Take away their faith, love, duty, religion, beliefs, loyalty, financial stability, or anything else that means everything to your characters. Using this form of suffering to increase the tension in your story requires that you would have built a solid character all the way from the beginning of the story and not just have emotionless paper cut outs. That way, when the country that your soldier has dutifully served their entire life collapses in a chaotic revolution where the people the soldier is sworn to protect rise against the government the soldier is sworn to serve, the internal chaos of the soldier’s duty verses loyalty creates a conflict of interest for the character, thus making the character miserable. Other examples include perhaps a hunter who finds out too late that the wolf they chased on the night of the full moon was their beloved, and they just shot the wolf with a silver bullet and chopped of its head. As the wolf’s body returns to its human state, the naked body of the hunter’s beloved is revealed by parting of the clouds that had been covering the moon’s luminescence. While this may seem like an ending to a story, it begs the question of what the hunter will do now that everything they loved is gone. What happens when the wolf’s pack comes searching for the murderer of their family member? Does the hunter give in as a sacrifice of death? Or perhaps is cursed to join them, and thus give up everything they knew as a hunter?
In horror, you see a lot of suffering by means of gross, bloody deaths while other characters in the story get picked off one by one. While this is an effective means of adding or increasing the tension in the story, the problem becomes one of artistic death. If you reveal too early on how the character’s are truly dying, you take the tension away, but if you wait too long or don’t leave appropriate clues, when the creature or murderer is revealed, the reader won’t believe it. I think the same could go for the other genres as well, except instead of a really colorful death, you have multiple suitors for a romantic interest, or perhaps many people who could have the motive to truly commit the crime which started the mystery. This is a very artful balance between what the readers should be shown versus what the writer hopes the readers will infer. It’s a difficult balance to maintain in order to keep tension and suspense, as well as the reader’s somewhat limited attention span. I think it’s true for almost all genres that if you give everything away too quickly, the readers will lose interest.
I’d say these are pretty decent ways to get the writerly brain thinking about better ways to make characters suffer. I might have more thoughts on this later, but for now, it’s quite late and time for me to be done with my typing for the night.