Not something you’ve thought about before?
Secrets – both those kept by characters from each other and kept by the author from the reader – are terrific tools for increasing tension in a story.
In a nutshell, all kinds of suspense in a story – including sexual tension, but other kinds, too – arise from conflict. As we all know, without conflict, we don’t have a story to tell. But throwing in a bunch of conflict into a story alone doesn’t work either. Then we just have a hot mess of rushing from one horrible event to the next with no sense of arc. (We’ve all read books like that, yes?) Whereas building tension through various levels of conflict creates an overall sense of suspense.
It’s often said – I’ve heard it from Kristan Higgins and Sarah McLean – that if you can get your readers to feel any emotion, you can get them to feel all emotions. I think this is true for tension and suspense: if you can keep the readers on edge about small tensions, those add up to larger suspense.
Secrets create tension
Characters keeping secrets from each other creates all kinds of tension and conflict. If someone has a secret, they have to go to lengths to conceal it. They might lie, which leads to more lies. They might play false in other ways, hiding their true natures from the people in their lives. Then, when the secrets inevitably come out, those play naturally into the resolution of the story conflict, too.
Also, the author can keep the reader in suspense by saving revelations for the end. Obviously, in a who-done-it, the revelation of the identity of the killer is a major climax. But there are other ways to keep secrets from the reader. This is a fine line to walk because the reader needs enough to clues to feel they could have put the puzzle pieces together. There are few plot devices I loathe more than the author who creates mystery and suspense by deliberately withholding key information. Instead, the pieces need to be doled out, but in such a way that the reader feels they’ve discovered the clues on their own. This same method can be used across a series of books, saving that critical revelation for the series climax.
Secrets can be big or small, but all people have them – and the savvy writer can exploit that aspect of human nature to amplify tension in fiction.
Interesting in learning more about how to use secrets in your stories? Jeffe will be teaching Keeping Secrets and Creating Suspense with Jeffe Kennedy starting Monday!
Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include novels, non-fiction, poetry, and short fiction. She has been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award.
Her award-winning fantasy romance trilogy The Twelve Kingdoms hit the shelves starting in May 2014. Book 1, The Mark of the Tala, received a starred Library Journal review and was nominated for the RT Book of the Year while the sequel, The Tears of the Rose received a Top Pick Gold and was nominated for the RT Reviewers’ Choice Best Fantasy Romance of 2014. The third book, The Talon of the Hawk, won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Best Fantasy Romance of 2015. Two more books followed in this world, beginning the spin-off series The Uncharted Realms. Book one in that series, The Pages of the Mind, has also been nominated for the RT Reviewer’s Choice Best Fantasy Romance of 2016 and won RWA’s 2017 RITA® Award. The second book, The Edge of the Blade, released December 27, 2016, and is a PRISM finalist, along with The Pages of the Mind. The next in the series, The Shift of the Tide, has recently been released. A high fantasy trilogy taking place in The Twelve Kingdoms world is forthcoming from Rebel Base books in 2018.
She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.
Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com, every Sunday at the popular SFF Seven blog, on Facebook, on Goodreads and pretty much constantly on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Connor Goldsmith of Fuse Literary.
The Shift of the Tide (Uncharted Realms #3)
Released from the grip of a tyrant, the Twelve Kingdoms have thrown all that touch them into chaos. As the borders open, new enemies emerge to vie for their hard-won power—and old deceptions crumble under the strain…
The most talented shapeshifter of her generation, Zynda has one love in her life: freedom. The open air above her, the water before her, the sun on her skin or wings or fur—their sensual glories more than make up for her loneliness. She serves the High Queen’s company well, but she can’t trust her allies with her secrets, or the secrets of her people. Best that she should keep her distance, alone.
Except wherever she escapes, Marskal, the Queen’s quiet lieutenant, seems to find her. Solid, stubborn, and disciplined, he’s no more fluid than rock. Yet he knows what she likes, what thrills and unnerves her, when she’s hiding something. His lithe warrior’s body promises pleasure she has gone too long without. But no matter how careful, how tender, how incendiary he is, only Zynda can know the sacrifice she must make for her people’s future—and the time is drawing near…