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Ratchet Up Tension in Your Mystery

Ratchet Up Tension in Your Mystery

Why Tension? Isn’t A Mystery a Puzzle?

A mystery is a story. A good story of any genre needs tension. Tension is what keeps readers reading. Without tension your story can feel episodic with no push for the reader to continue.

What is tension in a story? It’s the state of being stretched tight. In a story, tension applies to a character’s mental and emotional state. In order for readers to feel tension, they must care about the character. When a reader empathizes with the character and the character is confronted with an obstacle, the reader feels the tension.

Escalate the Tension

You create the story by writing scene by scene. Each scene has some type of tension. Build story suspense by increasing the difficulty of the challenges to your protagonist, the sleuth. 

Planning your mystery helps with ever-increasing difficult challenges. Start with small ones and build to the final confrontation.  

How To Build Tension in Your Mystery

Use a variety of techniques to keep your reader reading by challenging your sleuth in many ways. Don’t forget that the mental and emotional state of your sleuth are the keys to getting your reader involved. 

  1. Character Empathy. For the reader to experience tension as your sleuth is confronted with obstacles, they first have to care about your protagonist. When you introduce your character in the beginning in her everyday world with an action that overcomes a minor obstacle displaying her skills, you are creating empathy. That empathy is how your reader becomes attached to your sleuth.
  2. Raise the stakes. Each time a character overcomes an obstacle you relieve tension. As the story progresses, organize your stakes for each successive obstacle by making each one more difficult than the last. Start with small challenges and then frustrate your character. Your reader will wonder how he will meet the new challenge. As the challenges become bigger, your reader is more involved. 
  3. Set a time limit. When your sleuth has a certain amount of time to solve the mystery, you raise the stakes. The boss gives him a week to solve the case or he’ll be replaced. She’s leaving for the trip of a lifetime with her fiance in three days. The ship home sets sail in three days. 
  4. Uncertainty. Use your sleuth’s fears and shortcomings to create anxiety. With her weakness exposed, your reader feels the challenge. When your sleuth is off-balance you create tension. Because your sleuth is threatened by fear, he may react badly, heightening the tension more. Keep the biggest uncertainties for the end. The biggest weakness. The biggest fear. 
  5. Character conflict. Once your reader is familiar with your main characters, putting those characters at odds raises emotional tension. Emotional tension is vibrant and powerful for readers. Just as powerful as a physical threat.
  6. Internal conflict. Build tension by placing your sleuth in a moral dilemma. Give her a choice between two bad and conflicting ends. Or save a suspect by defying the law. Once again, your sleuth’s defence mechanisms against these choices can result in worse consequences that build more tension.

Vary your use of tension-building devices. A conflict similar to the one your hero faced before lessens the tension. Think conflict variety. 

Aim to escalate the the conflict as you build tension. Otherwise, your mystery will feel episodic with one sequence following another but without raising the stakes.   

Pace Your Moments of Tension

In a mystery, the major tension is solving the puzzle of who killed the victim(s). Each additional moment of tension holds reader interest. Pace your tension building moments at major story points. Escalate the stakes along the way. Keep your revelation to the end of the mystery, so your reader guesses along with your sleuth. 

You’ll keep your puzzle agreement with your mystery reader and maintain their involvement by telling a great story filled with conflict.

Zara Altair

Photo by Norbert Tóth on Unsplash

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