Questions about writing: How do you increase tension?

Here are a couple more questions from my students in ITW’s Online Thriller School.  The topic: tension.

You have mentioned that it’s the characters who drive the plots and not the other way around…

In the previous lecture, David [Corbett] said that we need to increase tension in every scene as we progress, hence the characters would be acting accordingly… I mean, I don’t get it, I’m unable to understand how these two things tie up.

To increase tension (and keep the story interesting) I need to make scenes that would drive my characters (almost) insane with that specific goal that the story is about; at the same time, these scenes will in turn affect the character and how she would be reacting to each scene and progress; BUT you say, characters would be driving the plot…

I’m sorry if I seem to be going in circles, but could you clarify that for me??

Remember, characters don’t just react to tension. They are the ones who CREATE the tension. Every time one character does something, another responds. The protagonist and antagonist cause increasing problems for each other through their choices, actions, and reactions. This IS the plot. And it is shown in scenes. Tense scenes.

Thanks for the scene tension/reaction clarity. From your book, Phantom Instinct: “Then somebody throws a Molotov cocktail, and the club is quickly engulfed in flames. L.A. Sheriff Deputy Aiden Garrison sees a gunman in a hoodie and gas mask taking aim at Harper, but before he can help her a wall collapses, bringing the building down and badly injuring him.”

The “somebody” who threw the cocktail was the character who created this tension of the roof falling?? The gunman in a hoodie aiming at Harper is another character creating more tension??

So tension can be created by anyone? A bus driver swerving off to the side, a bike rider stopping to take a breath, it can be anyone from the protagonist/ antagonist to any insignificant character that comes for a split second and is never heard of again?

Yes, tension can be created by any character. It can also be created by nature (a cyclone, an earthquake, a fire). When you’re writing, keep in mind that you’ll create the greatest tension when it arises from conflict between the major characters.

(Interested in next year’s Online Thriller School, or ITW? Hit the link.)

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