A couple of people have asked recently how to add suspense and tension to a piece of writing so here are a few ideas with a handy acronym.
Vocabulary is really important when trying to create an atmosphere. Edgar Allan Poe knew this look at these words from the first three stanzas of ‘The Raven.’
Dreary, weary, bleak, sorrow, nameless, terrors, faintly, darkness, echo, murmured.
All of this paints a bleak and gloomy picture in the mind of the reader and begins to build up a sense of foreboding. This section could include ominous sounds and other imagery such as similes and metaphors.
Variety of sentences
Pace is important while building tension. Short and snappy sentences build up a sense of panic or energy. Three, two or even one word sentences increase speed and also tension.
e.g. There was a cool breeze as she wandered between the tall trunks of the trees in the forest on the way to her Grandmother’s house. She wrapped her scarlet cloak tightly around her and pulled up her hood before quickening her pace. It was slowly going dark; it was never a good idea to be out in the woods in the darkness. She heard footsteps behind her. She stopped. She listened. They had stopped too. She continued on her journey to her grandmother’s house with the basket of treats for the old lady. There is was again…footsteps. She hurried. There was rustling to her left. She ran. Something followed. She tripped. It was on top of her. Snarling. Growling. A wolf.
Short sentences build tension and longer ones relax it allowing time for your reader to catch their breath.
Inconsequential description is that which does not have any impact on the plot. It also frustrates the reader. There is nothing more frustrating to a reader than being delayed on their journey to the point of highest tension. To delay their journey we add in some inconsequential and mundane description. That will have your reader screaming that they don’t care what the weather was like outside they just want to get to the point. The point when they find out what is going on and your reader will love it, like receiving a parcel in the post and it’s difficult to get the packing off.
I have added in some inconsequential sections in red.
It was slowly going dark; it was never a good idea to be out in the woods in the darkness. She heard footsteps behind her. She stopped. The moon shone brightly through the twisted limbs of the trees. She listened. They had stopped too. She continued on her journey, as she had done before a hundred times, to her grandmother’s house with the basket of treats for the old lady. There is was again…footsteps. She hurried. Her feet made little impression on the soft, leaf-littered ground. There was rustling to her left. She ran. Something followed. She tripped. It was on top of her. Snarling. Growling. A wolf.
The threat or danger that the characters are facing needs to be realistic. The reader needs to be able to put themselves in the characters’ shoes. The dangers that they face should be believable, perhaps with dire consequences like death or serious injury. Perhaps you could give them overwhelming odds or a huge dilemma.
The reader will know the plans of the villain in the story, or they will have inferred or guessed what is going to happen. Add in some unexpected plot twists. For example: The house fell down but the characters had already hidden in their tree house in the garden. In The Graveyard book the killer is about to murder the child in his bed until we find out that it is a teddy bear and the child, the most vulnerable member of the family, has already escaped by himself. (unwittingly)
Show what is happening rather than use up valuable story time telling the reader what is happening. If a character’s ‘knees are knocking as they entered the building’ we know that they are nervous without being told. Give clues to move the plot on rather than saying explicitly. If a character is being followed then give clues that the reader can infer or deduce that it is happening e.g. the classic footsteps that stop when the character stops.
Of course there may be other devices that you want to add in or discuss such as use of punctuation, similes and emotive language but I felt that these were less specific to the task of adding tension.