Writing Tension

Today I am welcoming the first of many – I hope – guest bloggers, Eric Staggs the founder of Spectacle Publishing, who were insightful enough to publish my debut novel, Spiral of Hooves. Creating Tension is a key part of a writer’s art and getting it right, keeps readers wanting more. And without further delay, here’s Eric.

Smoke On The Water ~ Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Smoke On The Water ~ Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev / FreeDigitalPhotos.net



What makes a real page-turner? Think about it. What is that single thing that makes you want to find out what happens next? In almost all cases the answer is anticipatory tension.

Good writers will use this technique on audiences all the time, even if the audience doesn’t know it. Here are a few examples – starting with the obvious, and then working into some you may not have thought of. Get your ratchet up the tension with some tried and true techniques, for your crime genre stories and beyond.

The Timer

Tick-tock typically gets the heart going. In film and literature, it’s usually associated with something bad. Think about all those bombs with timers, counting down ominously, whether its five minutes or fifty, or five days, the timer represents the loss of future opportunity, as well as a count down until something inevitable but unpredictable happens.

Time is the only thing we can’t change – this concept is so ingrained into audiences, it’s almost an instinct (though, new physics are telling us that time is affected by gravity and velocity, for most of us, time is time). This instinct regarding the immutable march of time is something that terrifies the human on a deep, hindbrain level. Way back in the primitive part of the human mind, we know that time is a marker, defining segments until we reach our own demise. Whew!

Your novel can’t always have a bomb-timer, well at least it shouldn’t. So, what are some other methods you can use to raise the tension? There’s really no need to vary from the tried and true method of a countdown. But sometimes you need to disguise it. Here are some non-standard timer ideas to get the creative juices flowing.

Image courtesy of hywards at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Days and Nights

The natural passage of time is expected in most narratives – but the situation becomes much more exciting when the event at the allotted amount of is dangerous. For example, in Isaac Asimov’s classic Nightfall, the timer is counting down to the moment when the planet is engulfed in darkness. For the people of a world that never sees sunset, this is a big deal – it might as well have been a bomb.

The Stars Are Right

The motivations of criminals are sometimes hard to fathom, but when they’re cultists waiting for the proper cosmological alignment, the timer can be down right world shattering. When an inevitable planetary conjunction brings murderous cultists out seeking sacrifices, the “timer effect” is in full swing.

Further Down The Road

Travel is a form of timer as well. Getting from point A to point B is often the bulk of the story (just ask those Hobbits), but travel and distance are a form of timer as well. Perhaps the best kind – the journey eats up supplies as fast as miles, the psychological cost of being on the run cannot be overstated. Refugees, escapees or even willful migration is more taxing than most characters are expecting. In the crime genre the journey often manifests as an escape or a hunt – depending upon which side of the law the protagonists fall. Making good an escape is another form of timer – will the protagonists make the rendezvous and escape the relentless lawman? Will the lawman catch the kidnapper before leaving his jurisdiction?


Vintage Train Placards ~ Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Vintage Train Placards ~ Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

These are just a few examples of how writers employ time and timers to elevate tension. Tension comes from expectation – realistic expectation of actual events or anticipation of the unknown – and that tension grows with delay of that expected event. Use it wisely!



    Eric Staggs (www.ericstaggs.com) is a writer and publisher. As founder of Spectacle  Publishing and Great Lakes Games, Eric works with authors at all stages in their writing careers. Learn more at his website.


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