Periscope Depth

tension = uncertainty x stakes

Every story needs tension. Every story except the truly experimental needs to instill anticipation in the reader, to keep them turning the pages. Even those abstruse literary novels that are adapted from tales everyone knows (like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) contain some tension, in the mystery of “how is he going to address this issue?” if nothing else.

My current genre, the thriller / crime novel, requires more tension than most. People turn to thrillers when they want compelling page-turners and the chance to escape into an exciting world. So I thought a lot about tension in writing Too Close to Miss, and I’m thinking about it even more with the next book in the series.

And I’ve hit on a formula that (I think) is original* and (I hope) is useful:


Let’s break this down.

By uncertainty, I mean ignorance about what’s coming. Uncertainty is distinct from risk. Risk is a known quantity, like the odds of sevening out in craps. It means you can predict the outcome and make an informed decision. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity. There’s a difference between not knowing how the dice will come up (risk) and not knowing what you don’t even know (uncertainty).

(Frank Knight breaks this down much more dryly in Risk, Uncertainty and Profit, so I’m not making this up)

To take a cliched action movie example: our hero is crouched behind a concrete pillar while a gunman at the other end of the street fires at him. If our hero chooses to duck across the alley, spraying bullets over his head for cover, that’s a risk. He’s taking a chance on getting shot in order to achieve the payoff of a better angle. If the gunman is actually a concealed sniper, however, then we’re dealing with uncertainty. Where is the gunman hidden? When is he going to fire next? How good of a bead does he have on our hero? And so on.

(You might say that uncertainty tends to slide into risk; as our hero gets answers to those questions above, he starts calculating the odds on when to act next)

Not seeing a lot of options here.

To use a popular example: risk is Luke and Leia swinging across the gap in the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope. Yes, there’s a chance they’ll fall in, but all the dangers seem pretty visible. Uncertainty is Luke stepping onto the board over the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi. He seems to know how he’s getting out of this, but we don’t. He’s surrounded by guards! Leia’s already been captured! Giant flesh-eating pit monster! What’s with that jaunty grin on his face?

Uncertainty keeps the audience guessing. It actively engages the readers in the process of building the narrative. You read something weird and you can’t help but try to guess what will happen next. That makes for a much more satisfying reading experience.

By stakes, I mean what our hero is in danger of losing. In the thriller genre, this is typically a threat on the hero’s life. There’s a maniac with a knife obsessed over the pretty cop; there’s a brutal stranger who’s been torturing his victims. The use of good sensory details makes this danger more evocative.

Of course, you can put something besides the hero’s life at stake. Maybe their reputation is in danger: if word gets out, they’ll be too ashamed to ever leave the house. Or maybe it’s a relationship: they have a chance at true love, but it’s slipping away. Say what you will about their quality, but romance novels are good at playing with these sort of stakes. The millionaire heiress might lose her fortune and her reputation if anyone finds out about her relationship with that rough but tender cowboy, and so on.

The best sort of tension arises from when more than one factor is at stake. So the loner cop not only has to find the serial killer, he also has to keep his marriage from falling apart. The commando not only has to smuggle the German rocket plans back to Lisbon, he has to rescue the beautiful Baroness as well, without revealing to his comrades that she’s married to an SS commander. Force your hero to choose between what’s at stake. Or force him to compromise. This keeps the anticipation churning.

So we have uncertainty and we have stakes. Combine them and you get tension. But tension isn’t just a straight line through the narrative. It should be an arc, building toward the end and then exploding like a firework. I’ll write about how to do that next time around, as this post is getting a little long.

If you want to see my theories on building tension put to use, check out Too Close to Miss, the crime thriller that readers are calling “compelling, incisively smart, and witty,” available on Kindle, Nook or iTunes.

If you’ve already read the book and felt properly seat-edged, please let your friends know via Facebook, Twitter or old-fashioned word of mouth.
* Googling “tension = uncertainty x stakes” yields this review of Circus Vargas. I swear I hadn’t read it before writing this post. Since people who know me know that I’m the last person on Earth who would actively seek out circus reviews, I think I can lay claim to an original thought here, or at least parallel development.

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