For me there are two types of tension that I look at when I'm writing.
The first is story-based tension. This is when you need to think about stuff like the stakes and conflicts that your character(s) have to deal with. What are the things that matter most to them and are the obstacles in their way high enough to push your characters after their goal and keep the reader engaged?
I don't know about you, but I love it when I'm holding my breath, itching to turn the next page of the book I'm reading to find out how in the world this character that I've fallen in love with will overcome to this crazy obstacle! (I'm assuming you like books like that too!) I get so bored when reading a book if the tension is just...lacking. Who wants to read about a character whose main obstacles are something I could overcome blind folded with one hand tied behind my back? Kinda boring, right? So, if the goal of your character is this amazing thing (which let's hope it is!) then make the stakes for them to achieve it just as intense as the goal or more!
Two other story-based ways to increase tension are foreshadowing and having a timeline. Adding in little hints of foreshadowing can really increase tension/suspense to areas that might be lacking and can keep your readers engage. And adding a timeline, like a countdown, to when your character has to have something done by automatically adds tension to the story because some terrible thing is going to happen by the deadline if they don't succeed and that terrible thing looms over the character the whole time. Now, that's not to say let's all just go crazy adding in random foreshadowing and deadlines. You don't want to confuse your readers, so make sure your story calls for those aspects before putting them in--and the only person that can know for sure if you should do that is you (or, ya know, you can seek advice from your crit partners too if you have them)
The second type of tension building that I look at in my stories are the technical aspects of my writing. How can the way I string together these words amp up tension? (I especially focus on these tension builders during action scenes.)
- Word choice: (especially with action verbs) Punch up your word choice. Instead of saying "He took my hand and pulled me away." You could say, "He grabbed my hand and yanked me away."
- Short/choppy sentence: This is a technique I use a lot during action scenes. Keeping your sentences short and sometimes choppy increases that tension your looking for. Action scenes aren't the the time for overly flowery writing or lots of backstory/information. Keep those for other areas where you want the tension to cool down and give the reader a breather.
- Character action: What are your characters doing? Are they all lazing about (is lazing word? it is now). When you're in an intense situation, your body is probably reacting to it, right? Let your characters' bodies react too. Are they tapping nervously, running, fidgeting, taking a swing, ect. The list goes on and on. Don't forget to let them react.
- Dialogue: 1)I am a greedy withhold-er of information when it comes to my dialogue. My character's questions get ignored or cut-off. They get answered in a roundabout way that doesn't actually give them any info. I love keeping my characters (and readers) questioning. They don't always need straight-forward answers to their questions. That'd be kinda boring, wouldn't it? 2)Maybe your MC wants something from another character w/out that second character knowing? Something like this can add underlying tension to a conversation that would be seen as a plain old innocent conversation to the 2nd character. 3) Just about any dialogue that is expressly confrontational will add tension to the conversation. Just make sure the scene calls for a convo that aggressive like that before you throw it in.
- Scene/Chapter endings: The best way to end a scene/chapter, I think, is to make your reading tearing the page to turn and see what happens on the next one. Don't end your chapters with a nice little wrap-up or ya know, your character peacefully falling to sleep. Stuff like that halts tension. And when that happens, I generally want to do what that character is doing...set the book down to curl up and take a nap too. Instead, keep your readers begging for more and staying up late to read that next chapter!
Keep in mind you don't want action, tension, action, tension, action, tension and nothing else in your story. Your readers still need scenes that slow down enough to give them a breather too and give them necessary information as well. You have to learn to balance scenes and, for me, that's something that I've only started learning after lots of practice. (But all that plays more into pacing, so I won't really get into that right now.)
Also, because I don't want to leave it out and I love it so much, how about a short note on sexual tension, too? You ever read a book where you're yelling at the love interest to Just Kiss Her Already! Yeah? Me too. But as much as I love it when they finalllllly do kiss...sometimes (most times) the build-up is what is actually better. All the almost kisses, the glances, the "innocent" touches, the flirty dialogue, or the awkward crap I like you and don't want you to know moments are what MAKE that scene when they finally kiss so great! Right?! Well, guess what? It also adds lots of tension in the characters' relationship. It makes the readers root for them and keep reading until that final moment when those two crazy kids finally kiss--or more, depending on how racy you wanna get ;)
Here's a snippet of a scene in my own WiP with some sexual tension. (Uh...keep in mind this is my first draft, so it's not amazazazing! or anything, but I hope it shows what I'm talking about with the tension aspect. This is a scene shortly after the 'love interest' thought my MC might have been dead.)
He stops walking and looks down at me with an intensity in his eyes that makes my pulse throb faster. His words whisper against my skin. “You can’t imagine how glad I am that you’re back.” I lick my lips, tilting my head up. He draws nearer, until I can almost taste his lips on mine. Suddenly I’ve never wanted anything more than to know the flavors of his mouth. The fear of how a kiss might change our friendship is nothing compared to the yearning building inside me.
“I thought—” Declan’s voice breaks as he cups my face, gaze searching. “I thought I lost you.” His lips part, eyes close, and I follow, leaning my body into his.
I can feel his warm breath mingling with my own, his mouth almost on mine, when a scream rips through the moment, tearing us apart. I jerk back. My head whips around. I look [down the corridor] just in time to see a large shape charging at my little sister.
So now that I've written my longest post ever (thanks to everyone that made it through all that), I hope this helps you with knowing how to add that necessary tension to your stories so you can keep your readers screaming for more!