Heighten Tension by Raising the Stakes

Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel about caregiving and ALS. Her short story collection, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, was a finalist in the Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Awards. Her fiction has won Gold and Silver Medals from Readers' Favorites International Book Awards, the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, and many others.

If you heighten tension, you can transform a good book into a book readers can’t put down. That’s because we’re hardwired for danger. We register a threat when we see a shadow on a sidewalk. If a dog lunges toward a fence, we jump back. If our spouse tells us he’s having an affair, we scream. All this occurs in a nanosecond. We don’t “decide” if we’re threatened or afraid. We take in data, and our bodies react.

cave painting of human hands

These are handprints from a cave painting. They’re 10,000 to 12,000 years old and a testament to how similar we are to our long-ago ancestors. Our primitive “flight-or-fight” responses gave homo sapiens the advantage over other hominids. Even today, our bodies react when we’re frightened. Fear = tension. We’re tense when there’s a lot at stake: life or death, success or failure.
Taken at the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.


Get Rid of Slow-Moving Passages

When I go to a bookstore and randomly pick books off the shelf, I’m often amazed at how similarly many novels begin. If you can get rid of passages like those below, you’ll heighten tension simply because you’re eliminating slow moving passages and cliches.

  • Characters talking about the weather;
  • Waking up in bed or with amnesia;
  • Staring out the window;
  • Taking a shower or drinking a cup of tea or coffee;
  • Brushing teeth and looking in a mirror.

Make Passive Characters More Active

One reason books start with a character waking up in bed is that the writer is just getting to know the character. What better way to get to know someone than to watch them go through their morning routine?

True enough, but that’s pretty boring for the reader. Readers want to see what