What a fun picture. Why is this photo so good? Mainly, it inspires a sense of tension and suspense about how the victim of the prank will react.
The element that makes this an engaging photo also makes writing engaging — suspense. Surely, one of the most important elements when considering a good piece of fiction is how tense or suspenseful it is. However, creating tension in writing can be challenging. Here are some quick tricks for adding suspense to your writing.
1) Ticking clocks and deadlines
When a character is on a tight deadline, the sense of urgency naturally adds tension. A story built around a character who has to rush to the other side of the country to find a doctor for his dying mother is much more engaging than a story built around a quest without any ticking clock. Consider the significant amount of tension in J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as compared to his previous work, The Hobbit. In the former, Frodo’s mission to destroy the dangerous ring creates an implied “ticking time-bomb” that keeps readers on the edge of their seats much more so than in The Hobbit.
Putting your character in a perilous situation with various challenges is another surefire way to create tension. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series is a great example. Harry is in extreme peril throughout the entire series, and he consistently confronts challenges that put him in increasingly difficult situations. The danger creates worry and curiosity in the reader. How will this situation be overcome? How will the character escape? The suspense keeps the reader engaged.
Talking the reader through the characters’ worrying thoughts, doubts, and feelings reinforces suspense because it becomes clear that the characters don’t know how they might make it out of the situations they are in. The element of unknowing keeps the audience hooked. Many successful authors use this technique to great effect. In The Hunger Games Series, Suzanne Collins used this technique to create suspense around the true nature of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship.
4) Change of perspective
This technique can be used two ways. First, it can be used to leave one plot line hanging, while you attend to another. The reader will be left wondering what is going to happen in the previous plot line. Second, it can be used to give the reader information that will heighten understanding of the true situation and can create anticipation or anxiety about whether or not the characters will discover the truth.
The photo above is a great example of how this can work. If we are following the progression of the story from only the man’s perspective, there is not much interesting until after the water has spilled on him. If we stop before the event and leave his perspective for another, either the boy’s or a neutral observer’s, we get some information and begin to wonder what will happen next. Will the man get mad? Will the boy get in trouble? Will the man figure out who did it? Leaving the reader hanging while you explore another plot line or give perspective on the character’s situation will keep your audience engaged.
There are several more techniques for adding tension into your writing. If you are looking for more tips, check out: