To increase narrative tension avoid the sense of “limbo” in your fiction, give your characters a sense of their past, present, and future. You want to spend most of your time in the present, sure, but if you don’t weave in the past and future of your character eventually … the present will start to feel like limbo. And readers will not want to be in limbo for long.
Start in Action
One of the notes I give the most in my editing work is to start in action, whether it’s a simple picture book or complex young adult novel. If you cannot choose a scene or moment that is sustainable for a page or two (this applies to novel or picture book), then it’s not the right place to start.
Most common is zooming away to fill in backstory. For example, “I sit in the assembly, looking around. There’s Phoebe, my best friend since kindergarten. The day we met …” and then we’re off to kindergarten.
Readers need a reason, like narrative tension, to keep reading your work, especially when you launch a new story. A scene that you sustain allows them to truly sink in. Ideally, there’s enough action to get them invested. Something is happening. The character is allowed to be active and proactive (readers love a proactive character).
And while some of us are trying to achieve a “be here now” mindset in our personal lives, this can actually backfire in your creative writing. Sooner or later, the character’s past and future need to come to the party to create narrative tension.
What is Narrative Tension?
To quickly define it, narrative tension means something in the story that keeps a reader invested in reading. My favorite thing to talk about (well, one of like 5,000) is loops. Humans hate an open loop—something unresolved. That’s why writers need to open loops as they go. Usually, the loop asks the question, “What will happen here?” Or, “Will the character get what they want?” Or, “Will this thing from the past ever be resolved?”
If our characters exist only in the present moment, going from scene to scene, we risk our power to create narrative tension, or open and close the maximum number of loops.
Weave in Narrative Tension and Context
Think of how your own mind operates. In a normal span of fifteen minutes, I spend woefully little time in the present. I’m usually “time traveling,” as I call it. My mind is either dwelling on something in the past, or worrying about something in the future. (Looking for meditation app recommendations, plz!)
Characters should spend a bit more time in the present than I do in my personal life, but you can use this tendency of the human brain to “time travel” to add narrative tension and open loops.
As for the past, think of your character’s wound (vulnerabilities) and need. They have probably experienced something in the past that shaped them and needs resolving in the present or future. They may think about it once in a while to plant seeds and drive up tension.
As for the future, think of your character’s objective and motivation. What they want and why they want it. Maybe the wound/need (past) and the resulting objective/motivation (future) tie together into something the character can pursue in the present. (Hint hint: They should!)
Bringing It All Together
Think about your chapter endings. Ideally, this is where you’re really reminding your readers of the loops open in your story. I like to have characters either learn something new in the present, or set themselves to really pursue their future goals. This adds instant narrative tension.
Have you developed your character’s wound, need, objective, and motivation? If not, drop everything and start daydreaming.
Are you struggling with narrative tension in your picture book or novel? Let me be your freelance editor and we can find it together.