So you’ve sent your book off to beta readers and you get some heart-sinking feedback: your story is dull or the reader lost interest partway through.
There are many reasons a reader’s engagement can falter, but today I’m going to address one I see often: lack of tension.
At any given point in your book, there should be at least one thing that has a decent chance to go wrong, or there should be a question the reader urgently wants the answer to. This gives us stakes at every point in the story, whether large or small.
“Will these two characters finally kiss?”
“Will they sneak into the highly-secured building, or will they get caught?”
“Can the main character win this duel?”
“Will they avoid the school bully this chapter, or confront them?”
Juggling multiple subplots can be essential.
In a novel-length piece of fiction, you’re going to need more than one element of tension, because the reader also needs the gratification of occasionally resolving tension throughout the book. Otherwise, they’ll feel frustrated, or that they’re being “strung along”.
This is where sub-plots come into play. Throughout your book, various sub-plots can overlap to keep the flow of tension going like a satisfying rollercoaster ride.
Let’s use the following hypothetical novel as an example, a YA Contemporary sports story:
The Main Plot is a sports championship, with various victories and setbacks along the way (a training montage, winning/losing early matches, a minor injury that could affect the outcome).
Sub-plot A is your romantic sub-plot. Will the main character (MC) and their love interest get together?
Sub-plot B is the main character’s faltering relationship with their mother. She doesn’t approve of the MC playing this sport (maybe the MC’s father left her to play professionally in another country, or maybe it’s dangerous and she fears for the MC’s well-being).
Throughout the story, these plots and sub-plots give you room to create smaller segments of story that lead the reader through the book. If one aspect of the Main Plot gets resolved in Chapter 10, add an argument between the MC and their mother in the Chapter 9, leaving a thread untied for a few chapters. You can “leapfrog” plot points around each other this way so there’s at least one unanswered question being addressed in every scene.
An exercise to check the tension in your novel:
Pick a few random scenes in your book. At the beginning of each scene, jot down all the questions the reader should have in their mind at the moment. Does the scene address any of those in some way?
If the tension levels surrounding the reader’s unanswered questions do not change throughout the scene, consider tweaking it.
An example from the hypothetical sports story above: The main character’s team has just won an early game that puts them in the running for the championship, diffusing main plot tension for the moment. The MC isn’t currently arguing with their mother, and there’s been some mild flirtations with the love interest so far but no solid progress yet.
We go into the scene with one main question: “What is the next step now that they’ve won this game?” with minor questions of “how are things going to proceed with the love interest?” and “are things going to stay ok with their mother?”
If the entire scene is the team celebrating at a pizza party, with no new plot wrinkles added and no sparks with the love interest, there’s no adjustment to the tension of those questions. As a reader, my motivation to turn the page decreases with each paragraph that neither adds or relieves tension.
Simple fix 1: The rival team’s captain shows up and adds a personal wager to their next match. This increases the anticipation of the upcoming game.
Simple fix 2: The MC’s mom is texting them, and they’re ignoring it because they don’t want another lecture. The texts get more and more urgent as the party goes on. This adds to the strained-relationship subplot throughout the scene.
Simple fix 3: The MC sees their love interest flirting with another member of the team. This amps up the relationship tension.
Ideally, these would be woven in with the important plot info about the next step on the way to the championships, which could otherwise come across as too much exposition.
If your beta readers found their attention wandering partway through your story, take a good look at that part of the book and ask yourself these questions:
- What imminent failure is the reader dreading right now, in this chapter?
(Losing a game, a rejection from the love interest, the MC getting grounded by their mother?)
- What upcoming gratifying thing is the reader looking forward to very soon?
(The first kiss with the love interest, that badass moment the MC’s team wins a match, or the victory of finally standing up to their overprotective mom?)
If the answer is “nothing”, adding anticipation or dread about one of these outcomes can keep the reader turning pages to find out more. Weave those tension-relieving moments with the opposing tension-increases in other subplots, so one of them is always building tension even when another subplot is getting resolved.
Do you have a favorite book you just couldn’t stop reading? The kind where you stayed up until 3am finishing it even though you had to get up at 6am? How did that book handle tension levels in its plot and subplot?
In that book, there was probably always at least one burning question you just had to know the answer to. By the time it was resolved, another question had cropped up, eternally pulling you forward.
Take a notebook and skim through that book while doing the exercise above to see how one of your fave authors handled tension in their story.
Tension keeps readers glued to the pages, and sprinkling in just the right amount can spice up those parts of your book that may be lagging.