Last week we discussed how to set up your readers for maximum impact when they come to your book’s call to action. Keep doing that this week. You build tension in informational nonfiction by getting your readers more and more excited to implement the knowledge you’re giving them. Keep that enthusiasm going using the techniques we discussed last week, and don’t hold back. Remind your readers how awesome their lives will be once they do what you’re telling them. Get them pumped and keep it up!
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
Last week we discussed how to set up your characters and storyline for the climax. Now we’ll discuss how to set up your readers for the same thing.
The climax of your book is the point of maximum energy, the moment when readers hold their breaths in excitement to see how everything is going to turn out. You want to write in such a way that they’re ready for that moment when it comes. You want them to experience the cathartic release of the climax in its full glory. Here are a few ways to help them do that:
1. Build momentum through small victories.
Let your characters achieve a few small victories leading up to the climax – solving part of the mystery, approaching their destination, or otherwise coming closer to achieving their goals. This excites them, which excites the reader vicariously and creates a sense of momentum.
2. Alternatively, take away all victories through catastrophic failure.
Maybe your characters have achieved part of their goal. They’re close to solving the mystery, they’re two steps from their destination, or they only have one more thing to do before they complete their mission. Rip it all away. Throw an obstacle into their path that halts them in their tracks and throws them into utter despair. This leaves the reader wondering, “How are they going to get out of this?” which is another great way to build tension. You can then start using small victories, stacked one right after the other, to build momentum back up to the climax.
3. Eliminate “sitting around talking” scenes.
Nothing grinds a story to a halt like having the cast sit around and discuss what they’ve done so far and what they intend to do next. Show your characters doing things, not talking about doing them, and you’ll keep the energy of the story rolling.
4. Raise the stakes.
What do the characters stand to lose if they don’t achieve their goals? Make sure you’ve clearly defined the consequences of failure, and that they’re big enough to hold the reader’s attention. Remember that the magnitude of the stakes is subjective; the more the characters care about the potential consequences, the more the readers will, too.
5. Cut unnecessary description.
The scenery might look beautiful during the scenes leading up to the climax, but it will make your drama evaporate if you spend too much time on it. A good rule to follow is that if the characters would be too busy to notice a particular detail, you don’t need to share it with the reader.
6. Add necessary description.
The details that you do share with the reader will enhance the rising action immensely. If your protagonist chases the bad guy through a sewer, he probably won’t notice the age of the overhead grating, but he will definitely notice the smell. These little snippets of sensory information build tension by drawing the reader more fully into the scene.
7. Compose the soundtrack for the story.
This idea won’t work for everyone, but I find it helpful to figure out the type of music that would accompany each scene if the story were made into a concerto or a movie. Look through your list of scenes in your outline and assign a fitting song to each one. Then look at the songs leading up to the climax. If you see a bunch of smooth, relaxing, flowing pieces, chances are you didn’t build enough tension in those scenes to excite the reader. It’s okay to have a few slower moments, but you want the majority of the rising action to sound dramatic.
(Side note: Please don’t actually mention the musical pieces in the book, i.e. “[Famous song] started playing in [character’s] head.” That comes across as really tacky.)
If music doesn’t work for you, you can try this same technique with artwork, colors, animals, foods, or any other sensory association. As long as you can differentiate between exciting things and mellow things, it should give you the same kind of insight into your story’s tension building.
Do you use other strategies for building tension in a story? Share them in the comments!
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury