Tension exists in everyday things, it varies in degrees from tiny brushes we barely notice, or not at all, to life altering almost soul crushing tension that tests the health of our hearts and bowels.
Since beginning to write, my critics eye pops out far more often, though it did a lot before. But what my critics eye notices now are good and bad aspects to how the story is put together. When before it just judged the story based on my likes or dislikes.
What I have noticed is the trend to add ridiculous drama elements into a story in an attempt to ratchet the tension. The result is drawing in drama audiences that could care less about the characters and only want to see the suffering or explosions. We have action and drama genres, and subcategories for genres for this very reason. When I read a story I tend to stay away from the drama tags, but I might read a story with an action tag. But that story cannot be senseless action, I need gripping story.
So what is gripping story? For me gripping story is depth of character. Two great examples of this are Fledgling, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, and Wool by Hugh Howey. Both are free on amazon. Neither are overloaded with action, but both will keep you reading. They are very different books, evoking vastly different emotions and thoughts, but they are both two of my favorites. Neither have what I would consider drama, but both have great tension.
Who the characters are, makes you empathize with them. What they go through makes you want them to succeed. The pacing and description are such that you are hardly ever kicked out of the story. The tension of the story is the gravity well you are caught in. Constantly falling so you must finish the book. Drama and action are, to me, popcorn stories. Quick things you can throw away after you are done, that don’t really stick with you. But good tension holds you in orbit of the characters and their world such that when you leave the story, they stay with you. You think about them long after you have finished reading their story, you tell your friends about them hoping they will be drawn into the orbit of this wondrous world you have discovered. As you can imagine, this type of thing sells a lot of books. Want to know how big of an impact it has? Type wool into google, for me it was the top three results. That could be googles algorithms, but I also know its mainly the book’s success. When your story surpasses it’s namesake, you are successful.
So, how do you replicate this in your books? In short and simple terms, explore the everyday. What do you worry about? What creates tension in your life? Paying the bills is boring? What about if you were paying the bills on a space station…to a pirate king? You can take the mundane and make it interesting by simply changing the setting. Case in point, in Fledgling, The main character is clumsy, now that might only appeal to a certain group of people normally, but what about when the government considers clumsiness a public health hazard? Then the tension raises from embarrassing and slightly dangerous, to possibly being locked away for your entire life.
Or what if going outside was so dangerous, that anyone who says they want to go outside is considered insane? That exploration of the everyday turned on its head is an aspect of wool. But these can’t be all a story is about. In fledgling and wool both, there are secrets of their worlds that we are allowed to know, so our imaginations grab ahold of these and want to explore, causing us to read more of the story. Wool and Fledgling both have sequels which reveal some of those secrets, but with Fledgling, some of those secrets are in other books set in the overarching universe. But in both there are also secrets that we never know, they aren’t essential to the story, they are just curiosities, but it leaves a mystery hanging in the back of your mind somewhere, and that makes the story feel more real. Now you don’t want to leave a big mystery hanging, that would be akin to a mystery writer never telling whodunit. The reader will revolt against that and hate the story.
So, in closing, think in terms of tension, instead of drama or suffering for your characters. Tension comes in many shapes and sizes, find the one that fits into your story.