Basics of Fiction Writing: Narrative Tension
Saul Bottcher, IndieBookLauncher.com—Posted 13 August 2013
- The First Component: Anticipation
- The Second Component: Uncertainty
- The Third Component: Investment
Narrative tension is often described as “the reason you turn the page”—in other words, the reader’s desire to know what happens next.
Narrative tension has three components: anticipation, uncertainty, and investment. As you’ll read below, there are different ways to create each component, and the way you mix them together will determine the flavour of the narrative tension in your book. Think of it like a stew: stew always contains a liquid base, solid ingredients, and seasonings, but your choices as the cook determine whether it’s an Irish Stew or a Cajun Gumbo.
Narrative tension should not be confused with conflict. Conflict is when characters are placed in opposition with other characters or with their circumstances. Conflict on its own does not guarantee narrative tension, and narrative tension doesn’t always come from conflict.
Narrative tension should also not be confused with pacing, which is the speed at which you tell the story. A fast or slow pace can support tension, but pacing alone doesn’t create tension.
So how do you create narrative tension? Let’s get down to details.
The First Component: Anticipation
The first component of narrative tension is anticipation. For the reader to want to turn the page, they must believe there is something interesting on the next page. It doesn't matter whether the reader is ultimately right, wrong, or unsure about what they’re going to find. The only failure is when the reader assumes nothing special will happen.
Anticipation arises when the reader becomes aware of possibilities. Imagine a story that will center around the protagonist being caught in a forest fire. There are several ways you could make the reader aware of the possibility of a forest fire:
- Directly: the car radio broadcasts a fire warning for the area while the protagonist is on their way.
- Indirectly: a park ranger warns the protagonist to be careful with their campfire.
- By drawing on the reader’s own experiences or common sense: the forest is described as very dry, and the reader knows this increases the danger of a fire.
- Through foreshadowing: before leaving for the trip, the protagonist sees their neighbor building a bonfire from the same type of wood as grows in the forest they plan to visit.
None of these methods is necessarily superior to the others. The direct method may seem simplistic, but if the narrative tension is focussed on the consequences of the fire, rather than on whether or not the fire happens, the direct method could avoid misdirecting the reader’s attention.
The Second Component: Uncertainty
Though the reader anticipates something will happen, they must have a feeling of doubt or lack of resolution. They may doubt their understanding of the situation, or be unsure of the outcome. This compels them to continue reading to obtain closure.
The reader’s uncertainty can take many forms. For example, picture a courtroom drama in which the protagonist is on trial for murder. The story follows the trial from opening statements to the final verdict. Here are different ways to set up this story to create different types of uncertainty and narrative tension:
- The reader knows whether the protagonist is guilty or not, but the facts of the case are complex, and the reader does not know what the verdict will be
- The reader knows the protagonist is guilty and struggling with it internally, but the evidence is shaky and the reader does not know whether the protagonist will admit their guilt
- The reader knows the protagonist is guilty, but does not know how or why the protagonist committed the murder
- The reader knows the protagonist is guilty and will be exposed in court, but does not know how the protagonist’s friends and family will react
In abstract terms, these examples show (in order) uncertainty about the outcome of an event, uncertainty about an internal struggle, uncertainty about a motivation or cause, and uncertainty about consequences.
The amount of uncertainty doesn’t determine the degree of narrative tension. Narrative tension can just as well be produced by an intense focus on two possibilities, such as the verdict at a murder trial, or by a completely unknown set of possibilities, such as a group of explorers lost in a wilderness full of unknown dangers.
The Third Component: Investment
A combination of anticipation and uncertainty may mildly arouse the reader’s curiosity, but to create strong narrative tension, the reader must also feel invested in the outcome.
The most well-known form of investment is a positive identification with the protagonist, which leads the reader to want good outcomes for them. However, investment has many dimensions. It can be:
- Intellectual or emotional. A typical “puzzle” mystery is based on the reader’s intellectual investment in discovering the solution, rather than any emotional investment in a particular character.
- Positive or negative. A revenge story is based on the reader’s desire to see bad things happen to a hated character, rather than a desire to see good things happen to a loved character.
- Directed at a character, group, society, institution, or even an idea. A story of a political uprising might have likeable and unlikeable characters on both sides, but the reader may be primarily invested in the outcome of the uprising and the political ideas under debate.
Any time the reader wants a specific outcome, they are invested.
Narrative tension is the reader’s desire to know what happens next. It arises from a combination of anticipation, uncertainty, and emotional investment. These components can be combined in many ways to create countless flavours of narrative tension.
Narrative tension is not the same as conflict, though it can arise from conflict. It is not the same as pacing, though it can be supported by pacing.
For suggestions on evaluating the narrative tension in your manuscript, you might want to read our article Self-Critique: Narrative Tension.
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