Here’s a great tip I came across. Make sure to end each chapter with something your main character longs to happen, or dreads will happen. Longing and dread. Good things to keep in mind. But how to create that?
Ian McEwan is considered a literary writer who knows how to hook the reader with novels of “page-turning excitement.” In this old New Yorker profile, (The Art of Unease, 2009), he quotes Henry James who said the novel’s main obligation is to be interesting. McEwan finds most novels don’t succeed at this basic level.
After reading the rather long profile, I came away with two tools to create narrative tension:
a) Slow down. “At moments of peak intensity, McEwan slows time down—a form of torture that readers enjoy despite themselves.”
And b) Withhold information.
“Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information,” he said. McEwan is a connoisseur of dread, performing the literary equivalent of turning on the tub faucet and leaving the room; the flood is foreseeable, but it still shocks when the water rushes over the edge.”
Here are some other tips I extracted from the profile (not directly connected to building tension.)
Take long walks. Preferably in nature. He attributes much of his best writing to the mental restoration that comes from hiking in the woods or mountains. “The air was the cleanest I’ve ever breathed,” McEwan recalls. “One manifestation of this was the light—the hyperreal clarity of things. It was as if you had twenty-twenty vision, and someone said, ‘Here’s an extra pair of glasses.’ Everything was pinprick sharp.” That’s when his best ideas come to him or kinks in a novel-in-progress begin to unravel.
This one isn’t quite a tool, but I like how it puts a positive spin on worry. He says, “The writer in me is from my mother. She was a great worrier, which requires an imagination. She was always convinced that she left the iron on.”
Make a list of your obsessions, worries, and fears, the kind that make your heart skitter or pump extra hard. Perhaps what stands out most is your fear of being humiliated or exposed as a fraud or simply Less Than. No, you don’t have to tell the time you were caught doing that. But do try to get to the specific scenes or situations that get to your core worry. Being exposed in social situations, religious situations, having to do with financial status, or revealing a serious character flaw. Then construct an entirely imaginary scenario that will set up your conflict nicely without your having to go autobiographical. Still, your guts will be in that story because it’s a topic unnervingly close to you.