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How to write a novel: keeping up the tension

Award-winning novelist Lucy Atkins explains the importance of drip-feeding information to your reader so that they never stop turning the pages

by Psychologies

This month we’re going to get a bit tense. I don’t mean you should all start writing suspenseful spy thrillers, or shoehorn into your novel a serial killer peering through the kitchen window. All great novels are powered by tension, whatever their genre. In fact, one of the most gripping scenes in the whole of English literature, for me, comes in Jane Austen’s Persuasion when Wentworth slips Anne a passionate, confessional love note after overhearing her talking to a mutual friend. This scene brings me out in goosebumps every time I think about it, but it is a scene in which almost nothing actually ‘happens’.

The ability to captivate us seems effortless in great novels, almost magical. But what’s behind this magic?

Make every second count

Probably the first step is to understand where the central tension really lies in your own work. One way to do this is to develop an ‘elevator pitch’ for your book. Imagine you’re in a lift with a bunch of Hollywood film producers. You have less than a minute to get them hooked. Look for the nugget that feels exciting, compelling and irresistible. This is what you need to nurture and develop as you write and edit your book.

Ask yourself what’s at stake for your characters right now. What do they stand to lose? Why should the reader care? This really matters. In the first draft of my debut novel, The Missing One, my main character, Kal, was pregnant. My agent felt I needed to ‘raise the stakes’ for Kal so I rewrote the book. Instead of a pregnancy, Kal had a cute, curly haired toddler, Finn, who she must protect at all costs as she travelled deeper into unknown territory. This version sold immediately to a publisher.

Your readers, then, need to feel that the stakes are high. You need to bring them with you by escalating the tension as the novel unfolds. Adding obstacles, threats, or a ticking clock may help. These can be purely emotional. In Pride And Prejudice, they come from the characters’ internal worlds – even the ticking clock is a social construct. Will the Bennett sisters be left on the shelf?

Many writers also inadvertently destroy what tension they do have. One common mistake is to add a great chunk of backstory, often towards the beginning, so that your reader ‘understands’ your characters. This just slows the pace. It is more compelling to drip feed information as the novel progresses. Withholding is the key here: offer hints and allusions, raise unanswered questions and your reader will be desperate to turn the page.

Tension is vital, whether you’re writing a police procedural or a delicate work of fiction. Use it well, and your book will become that magical thing – ‘unputdownable’.

Lucy Atkins is author of ‘The Missing One’ (£7.99), ‘The Other Child’ (£7.99) and ‘The Night Visitor’ (£14.99, all Quercus). lucyatkins.com@lucyatkins

Photograph: iStock