Will the Ship Sink? Creating Tension


Will the Ship Sink? Creating Tension

I know a writing book showed me a way to create tension but I can’t remember which one. But I pass the tip on anyway. To wit: every scene in a novel has to end with a question whose answer might imperil or impede the hero’s success (my definition). Doesn’t have to be a big question or an astounding solution. Just has to be one. This unknown writing book author’s capsule phrase was will the ship sink?

An example

You can do a story and not have any tension. Consider this.

Your heroine is climbing a mountain with progressively more challenging ascents.

First slope: No problem. She is enjoying herself.

Second: Also no problem although it is much steeper than the first.

Third: Almost loses her balance but recovers and continues upward.

Fourth: She makes it to the top

Honestly, it’s a story—I’m not saying a good one—but things happen and she achieves her goal. Soooo boring.

Will the ship sink?

Let’s do this again, introducing a little tension. I am keeping the original ending.

First slope: She enjoys it for the first twenty minutes. But is getting winded. The second ascent will be much steeper.

Can she climb the next section?

No: She goes back, humiliation, etc.

Yes: She gathers strength and presses on

Second: Her legs are tired and starting to shake. She tries to use her handpick for purchase but can’t break through the rock.

Will she collapse?

No: She gets a toe-hold in a crevice and catches her breath

Yes: She can’t move

Third: She crawls to the base of the third slope. She forces herself to stand. And feels herself going over backwards.

Will she fall?

No: A boulder stops her fall. She gets back on the trail

Yes: She tumbles down to the bottom of the slope

Fourth: She makes it to the top

It retards the action to pars each scene as I’ve done but I hope it shows that adding a question (however unspoken) heightens the tension for the reader and therefore the impetus to keep reading.

Tips for tension

Every scene

We of course want tension as the climax builds to the end of your novel, but at the end of each scene is also helpful. Not always possible to do, admittedly. But probably more possible than you might think.

At the end of the scene

In the original example, the path gets steeper and she almost loses her balance. These could will-the-ship-sink moments but are resolved within the scene. So they don’t impel the reader forward.

More possibilities

Building in tension can open up the story. What happens if she can’t ascend the first slope? Different story but interesting possibility. Does she go home, defeated? Or does she vow to train and come back?

Negative outcomes create more tension

Generally speaking, the story is more exciting if each scene has a negative outcome for the protagonist. More tension. More pulling of the reader along. It can also take you into unexpected territory, not where you expected to go with the story. And that can be fun for you.

So, will the ship sink?