Dramatic tension and suspense are cornerstones of gripping storytelling – but they can take many forms, and there is a wealth of ways through which you can infuse them into your novel.
But even when you have a wide range of tools to generate tension and suspense, it can be difficult to decide which technique to apply, and where to apply it. Use the same approach over and over again, and readers are going to find themselves bored or agitated by your repetitious setups – so if you want to keep them on the hook, locked in place by expectation and thrilled by the results, choosing carefully is a must.
In this series, Tension Techniques, we’re taking a look at some of the ways that you can introduce tension and build suspense in your novel – whether on a larger, narrative-encompassing scale or with more intimate, scene-based methodology. Throughout, we’ll be talking conceptually about these elements, and hoping to raise a few points of discussion. Remember: concepts can be refined, twisted, and approached from many different angles – so don’t be afraid to take the core principle at play in each Tension Technique episode and think of surprising ways that you could use it.
In this entry, we’re digging into the notion of authority – a sense of elevated power that protects your characters… and how you can build tension by taking that away from them.
Now, authority doesn’t necessarily mean lawful authority – rather, we want to view it as encompassing people or things that surpass other characters’ abilities and provide a fallback or sense of support and reliability. Think greater intellect or knowledge of the situation, greater physical strength, superior tactical nous, or even an ‘untouchable’ political status. Whatever it is, these people, institutions, or even utilities (an AI, for example) can be considered ‘an authority’ in a story-relevant area compared to your main character(s).
With that in mind, we need to set the groundwork…
To begin, determine your hierarchy
Whether it’s on a large scale (your social layout on an institutional level) or within a smaller group dynamic, it’s a good idea to determine an authority hierarchy and set the groundwork early. This could be as simple as one member of the group being the most physically intimidating – the one everyone else looks to for the heavy lifting, or for their athletic ability when caught in a jam. It could also be the learned scholar: the character leading the expedition into the deep, dark ruins – and the only one armed with a fully rounded knowledge of the ancient tomes that led everyone there.
On the grander scale, your authority could be a body such as a council of elders, or even an entire army that acts as the primary defense of the realm.
You can, of course, have multiple authority figures, owing to their different specialties. There’s no need to keep yourself restricted to one single aspect when you’re dealing with authority as described here.
All that’s important is that you map out the dynamic before you start, and be sure to show the reader, early on, how and why the abilities of these people or institutions offer a measure of protection to your protagonist that they can’t immediately provide for themselves.
With everything in mind, here are a few choice ways to use the concept of authority as a trigger for tension…
In cementing the authority of other people or institutions over your protagonist, you set the defined scale of strength. Let’s say your main character is strong-willed, intelligent, athletic, and trained to kill – they’re still held lower on the strength scale by their inability to single-handedly take on an entire ruling regime, or by their reliance on a team to keep them informed and co-ordinated.
When you shatter that authority, you inevitably place your character in peril – but you also introduce a flowing current of tension to the story, for multiple reasons. One of these reasons is that your character is rendered vulnerable by the elimination of this authoritative safety net. Another is that it stacks the balance of power on to the villain, kicking off a running sense of worry and bringing up that all-important question: can the protagonist emerge victorious from this?
A quick example of this could be a secret agent whose team is compromised and killed off one by one, leaving them without backup, without equipment, without intel, and forced to face a deadly situation alone.
Another could be the arrival of an enemy who wipes out the armies of an entire kingdom as though they were nothing – leaving the protagonists ejected from their homeland and stripped of protection. This approach is generally a spectacle, a display of insurmountable power by the villain, and forms the basis for many a dramatic conflict. Think of almost any martial arts film, for example, which might focus on a trainee whose apparently unbeatable master is stricken down by an evil usurper.
Annihilation of authority is simple and successful because with the correct groundwork in place, we’re forced to wonder how the characters can even hope to stand up against an enemy that can so easily exterminate those ‘above’ them in the scale.
This isn’t to say that these stronger people or institutions have to be good. The reality is quite the contrary. You may, for example, have an oppressive regime under which your protagonists live displayed as the seat of authority… and then it’s wiped out, almost entirely, by an invading force that’s even worse. By the same token, an evil character who appears to be main villain might meet a ruthless end at the hands of the true scoundrel with whom your characters are destined to clash.
Play the isolation game
You can do this either through your setting or on a scene by scene event basis. On the setting side of things, your characters may become stranded, separated from the support structures you’ve determined early on. The question hangs in the air: without help, how are they going to survive? With this, your characters are forced to learn, grow, and develop support methods of their own – feeding their arcs.
On a scene basis, you’re looking more at specific happenings. Think of your protagonist investigating a dark tunnel, safe in the belief that backup is standing by. But when they try the radio… the response is nothing but crackles. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but they’re on their own. The same could be achieved if the tunnel were to suddenly collapse, physically cutting them off from support.
You could also mix this approach to strong effect, for example setting your story on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Help is available out there, but rarely at short notice. Things going wrong at sea – especially if you aren’t entirely prepared for them – is a tense enough position for anyone to be in… but what if, now that bad things are happening, the radio has been sabotaged?
Isolation is a great way to pep up the danger of your story as a whole, or individual scenes, by stripping away that safety net that was previously taken for granted. You keep the reader in suspense over what might happen, and tension naturally follows as the characters react. Get creative and try to think of ever more subtle ways to do this – it doesn’t have to be anywhere near as bombastic as a tunnel collapse.
Considering these tips are applicable across just about any genre, this technique could even be employed to make conversations fraught with tension. Imagine a character believes they have the backup of someone else so that they can have a difficult conversation with their overbearing mother about inheritance matters. As the conversation starts and metaphorical daggers are out, they look around for the person they’re relying on… only to see that person’s car driving away.
Yet words have already been said, and there’s no going back now. Or is there? What do they do?
Think it over, and let yourself be inspired.
Use deception – false or Imagined
This approach is centered around when authority and support structures turn against the protagonist. The conflict could be real – actions that are carried out by those higher on the authority scale – or imagined, apparent (for a time) only from the perspective of your characters.
In the latter instance, we’re left wondering whether they’re paranoid. We have no overt proof that authority has turned against them. Perhaps they’re unnecessarily turning against the authority. Either way, the benefit or support of that authority is removed, and while the truth remains dangling out of reach, it provides an additional source of tension on top of the character’s vulnerability.
This can also be used to a dramatic, tension-heightening effect where a character thought to be friendly and authoritative reveals themselves to be:
- An enemy all along – shockingly flipping the entire dynamic of the scene.
- Not as strong or authoritative as we’ve been led to believe – they aren’t who they’ve presented themselves as, and they don’t have the power to help in the exact moment that it’s needed. They aren’t necessarily evil, but they don’t have the strength expected of them at a crucial moment – and the safety net falls away before our horrified eyes.
Incompetence at the top
Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.
Pulling the authoritative safety net away from your characters doesn’t necessarily have to be a matter of malice. Rather, it can become clear that those expected to offer protection are incompetent. They may be naively blinding themselves to the reality of the threat, determined to follow a solution that is clearly destined to fail, or guided by a set of principles that are incompatible with the harsh reality of the matter at hand.
Note that in the latter instance, this authority figure may unexpectedly return later on – having decided they’re willing to step outside those principles and do what needs to be done. This kind of surprise, especially when attached to a likable character, can be a crowd-pleasing, liberating moment for readers if executed with panache.
The difference between this method and the others discussed earlier is that your characters themselves are the ones who decide to walk away from the authority. It isn’t stripped from them, necessarily, but willingly abandoned. This can make for individually tense scenes (the consideration and decision-making) and add an overall layer of suspense to the story (what are they going to do now that they’ve walked away?).
Mixing up your approach to authority-based tension is a great way to keep things interesting – and it’s just one method through which you can keep things on edge.
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