There was a man who wanted to rob a bank and escape with the money. He did. The End.
But unless you’re working on some flash fiction (and sometimes, even if you are), every story needs elements of suspense and tension. And these take time to build. You need to spread them out and mix them up to grip your reader by the throat and pull them into the story.
One ‘tension technique’ that helps you do this is, as the title of this piece suggests, the art of stalling.
But what’s that all about?
Well, we all love stories that are packed with suspense and tension because of the tingling anticipation they build in our stomachs. You just want to know what happens next – and devour page after page until you realize the sun’s come up and you’re running late for work.
As writers, those are the situations we want to create for our own readers (well, perhaps not going as far as to put employment in jeopardy, but you get the idea).
But creating satisfying tension on the page takes a lot of practice and some know-how.
Previously, we talked about using annihilation of authority to ratchet the levels of tension and suspense in your novel. This time, we’re going to talk in more functional terms – how you actually let individual situations play out, building tense setups into suspenseful spectacles.
If you haven’t already guessed, it entails playing with the brakes and being a tease.
First, though, a few ground rules should be laid for any legitimately suspenseful tale to work:
Rule 1: Write Believable Characters
Your protagonist and antagonist need to be three dimensional and believable characters. They key points are to create individuals with unique perspectives, motives, and traits. They don’t have to be a naturally likable character to get the reader interested in them – but they do have to be multi-faceted and interesting. For this, it helps to have detailed notes on every character’s back-story. This will help you think about how they would react and makes for a more believable character when they’re navigating the world you’ve created for them.
Rule 2: Create Conflict
We’ve said it before, and it still holds true – conflict is at the heart of every good story. Make sure your readers know what the greatest source of conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is. What are they most afraid of? Why does the conflict matter to them? What do they have to lose? These motivations underpin almost every single tense scene in your story and is what will get the readers desperate to know what happens next. A scene is tense because there is conflict – between characters, or a character and the environment.
Rule 3: Make the Stakes Matter
Since we’re talking about individual situations here, you might think that your primary conflict isn’t particularly relevant. You’d be wrong. Remember – if something isn’t relevant to your core story, there’s a good chance it shouldn’t even be there. Even small conflicts are in some way informed by the primary one. Think of it as a little chunk of a much larger whole. If your protagonist is getting into a tense encounter with another character over something trivial, they’re likely to fall out of favor with the reader due to their over reactive attitude. This ties in with the previous rule – because tension and suspense arise when the outcome of a situation, or the cause of it, actually matters as part of the grand scheme.
With that said, let’s move on the titular tension technique…
Stalling with Slickness
It’s key to remember that conflict drives tension, and so conflict is mandatory – but for a suspenseful scene, you want to withhold the payoff from the reader for just long enough that they don’t feel like they’re being cheated. This requires some groundwork at the beginning of the sequence.
This groundwork comes from informing the reader of what your character wants to achieve in this particular situation. What is it they’re seeking to accomplish right now? Why does it matter to the overall conflict? Make this understood at an early point.
You generate tension when you put an opposing force in your character’s way, like a micro version of the larger story arc of protagonist vs. villain. When this happens, you widen the metaphorical distance between your character and their momentary goal, and begin to hold off on giving your reader the answer to the question they’re asking themselves:
Are they going to succeed?
As long as that question remains unanswered (suspended), it will be hard to step away from the story.
This is dependent on maintaining interest, though. Stall for too long on a one-track road, and your reader is quickly going to become bored. If your protagonist enters a building with the intention of investigating a specific room, only to spend a wholly inordinate amount of time doing nothing but trying to open a locked door, any suspense you initially generated through that door’s presence will fizzle out.
If you want to stall a bit longer, here are a few ways to do so while maintaining interest:
Switching to another character takes the reader away from the in-progress micro-conflict and into another situation, without spending more of your original scene’s interest credits (so to speak). You could amp up the suspense by having this new character be someone opposed to your protagonist, who may be about to catch them in the act, or you could switch to a different scene entirely, suspending the action until you return to it in the next chapter.
Ramp up the difficulty
Instead of facing just one obstacle, build on the initial blockage by adding extra conflicts that are progressively harder for your protagonist to deal with. As mentioned earlier, think of it as a smaller, isolated version of your overall story arc – even though the goal, in this case, is a minor concern in comparison, it’s still a gripping experience with a variety of challenges to be faced.
It’s a good idea, when doing this, to make sure that the stakes balance out. This means that the threat to your character is in line with the importance of the goal. A thrashing from mom might be a worthwhile consequence for a character to face in their quest for a midnight snack. The wholly acknowledged possibility of every single family member bursting into flames as a result, however, isn’t. Over-inflated consequences can quickly come off as unintentionally ironic or comedic – a natural result of exaggeration.
Remind of ramifications
If you think you might be losing interest at a certain point, try subtly reminding the reader of the importance of what your character is doing. Reinforce why this immediate goal matters so much in the big picture, and you can buy yourself a little extra pep until you’re ready to cap off the events.
This one’s tricky, though, because if the scene has run out gas it’s usually a better idea to make the sacrifice and find a different approach instead of kipping your way forward. Which leads to…
Know When to Edit
We know that suspense needs to last long enough to grip readers, but not continue so long that they get bored. Finding this sweet spot is tricky, and takes practice to perfect. Just how long you make your tense and suspenseful scenes depends on several factors – including how long your novel is.
Look out for these points in your story as an indication that you might need to cut some fluff:
- Overly long sections of dialogue.
- Too much description or overly flowery writing (purple prose).
- Antagonist spending too much time explaining their wicked plans – just so the reader really gets the message, right? Right?
- Tension from more than one minor conflict overlapping each other. Try to keep crises separate, as pulling the reader in too many directions, too often, may cause mental fatigue.
- The internal timeline is too long. Don’t give them a month to solve the dilemma, give them a week. Or even a day.
For more advice on strict editing, check out our article on how to edit ruthlessly.
In the end, keep in mind that stalling generates suspense – you’re withholding an answer from someone who desperately wants it, and that’s all about ramping up the heat without letting the lid blow off. Or, in simpler terms, without testing your reader’s patience to the limit.
Realistically, there’s no sure-fire way to do this in your own work every time. The needs of every story can be subtly or wildly different and are dependent on a considerable number of factors. So, sadly, while there’s no ‘plug and play’ solution that will tell you exactly how much you want to pump those brakes, we do hope you still pick up a couple of useful pointers here.
In the end, just write, write, write, and test, test, test. Get feedback from your beta readers about any suspenseful and tense scenes, and adjust as necessary.
What are some of your favorite examples of stalling that kept you clutching onto a book late into the night? Can you recognize how the author held the payoff at arms length and kept you begging for an answer? Share your thoughts in the comments below!