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How to Keep Them Reading
Part Two
by Tina Morgan

In the previous article, I've shown you how something simple can be transformed into a nerve-wracking experience for your character. It isn't necessary to add all the "what if" questions into your story line or plot, but taking a look at everything from your primary conflict to each little subplot and you'll find places that you can incorporate some of these suggestions to build a stronger work.

Are these the only ways you can increase tension? No. One of the major things we've overlooked up to this point is character. Why would anyone really care at this point if Ted got to work on time or not? How many of us have been in the same situation? I know I've been late a time or two. Ted is just a name right now; he means nothing to anyone. But I can take this two different ways. What if Ted is a major jerk? He's cut off other cars on his way to work, he almost ran down a little old lady, he did hit the cat crossing the street and could care less, he only wants to keep his job so he can get drunk when he gets home, etc. Would you continue reading to see if he gets fired or not? What if Ted is a likable man who is trying to work his way through college or supporting his young child on his own? What if he's saving up the money to help pay for his brother's heart transplant?

Ted's character helps determine if we care enough to finish reading the story. It also can add anticipation to the story. What else will "evil" Ted do on his way to work? How will he treat his co-workers when he gets there? Will he blow off the new junior executive that has a crush on him? Will he respond so that he can use him/her later? Will "good" Ted be ruthless enough to cut through traffic to get to an exit that might allow him to get to work in time so that he can keep his job and pay for that operation? Will his mildness stop him from taking action and ruin his chances?

There are a few other ways to increase tension in a story that don't fit into my "Ted" scenario. One of which is sexual tension. Ted's alone in his car so he can't interact well with other characters but what if he were on a plane or bus? What if his destination was a business meeting? Could he be going with a co-worker? Is he/she (as the case may be) interested in Ted? Is Ted interested in the co-worker? What if Ted is married? Should he step over that line and have an affair with this person? What if the other person is married? Should Ted help him/her cheat?

What will Ted do?

As soon as that question is answered, the suspense ends. If the romance is a subplot then it is safe to end that particular conflict earlier in the novel. If the romance is the focus of the story then the suspense must be maintained until the final resolution at the end of the book. Could the story of Romeo and Juliet have continued if they defied their parents and ran off to live happily ever after? Not the way it's written. The romance was the focus. But if the focus was on whether or not Romeo and Juliet could escape their families, then the story can continue until the threat of family retaliation is removed.

Another way to increase tension is a lack of resolution. Let's go back to Ted. What if when he gets to work, his boss isn't there yet? Ted doesn't tell the boss he was late and the boss doesn't know that Ted didn't open the store on time, or add a vital ingredient to the experiment, or deposit the money in the bank on time. The lack of resolution can hold the story while Ted goes about resolving his issue with the infatuated junior executive. However, this type of suspense is difficult to craft. Some readers won't like the shift in subplots and will put the book down. Others will love it. These are the ones that often love soap operas as well, as never ending subplots often carry a show from one season to the next. Serial novels and movies often employ the same gimmick. How many times has Freddy Krueger come back to Elm Street?

Suspense is the key to the desire to finish reading a book after you've opened it for the first time. Suspense does not have to be heavy-handed. It can be as simple as: where is Steve going to find the next Blue's Clue or as intense as the killer slowly walking up the steps in Hitchcock's Rear Window. Whatever the level of suspense in your book, you must find a way to keep your readers wanting to turn those pages to find out what/how/when/if your characters achieve their goals.

Copyright 2002 Tina Morgan

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