Tension is one of the best means to hold a reader’s attention and keep them from putting your book down. It is also a feeling that isn’t always clearly defined.
If you ask for an example of what adds tension to a story, the first response you often hear is actually an action scene. The problem with that answer is: action isn’t necessarily tension. The car chase through Paris in the movie “Ronin,” is fantastic action. However, the movie’s tension isn’t the high speed pursuit and crash at the end, but comes from the conflict within the group of mercenaries gathered together to obtain a valuable suitcase. Some are trustworthy, others are not. The viewer is on the edge of their seat throughout the movie, wondering if Jean Reno, or Robert De Niro, or Stellan Skarsgard is a traitor.
In any genre there are different ways to inject the story with tension. In a scene from my novel Golden Chariot, Charlotte Dashiell, my heroine, believes that the characters from The Iliad, by Homer, may not have been only fictional. She engages in a heated discussion with Atakan Vadim, the hero. For every point she makes, he presents a challenging counterpoint and thus creates tension. I will paraphrase the dialogue from the scene.
Charlotte: “The story of Troy and the war was retold through the centuries. I’m saying it wasn’t a mere war story. It had to be more.”
Atakan: “No. The bones of the story were given to him (Homer)...a tale which happened to include a few accurate details. Like many bards, he filled it with people from his imagination.”
Charlotte: “Something made the story unique. I say it’s the people.”
Atakan: “He took bits of old tales, injects the legends with heroes and villains for entertainment purposes. Why do you dispute the logical?”
This is a small section of dialogue. Atakan’s disbelief, his doubt and the fact he forces her to defend her beliefs drives the tension between them.
Combining tension with action can be especially fun to write as we as paranormal romance authors can vicariously live experience with our characters. In the following, Charlotte, who’s a nautical archaeologist and part of a shipwreck recovery team, is out swimming in the sea near the team’s campsite. Unbeknownst to her, there’s been an undersea earthquake, which has triggered dangerous tides. What was a relaxing swim becomes deadly dangerous for her.
Like all the team, she was a strong swimmer and tried to power through the swells and turn back. Fighting the tide, she wasn’t making any progress. The current was sweeping her the opposite direction and toward the open water. She kicked harder as the waves surged over her head, pushing against her strokes, the salt irritating her eyes. Every time she opened her mouth to take a gulp of air after the first set, the whitecaps smacked her in the face, sending seawater into her lungs than air.
She caught glimpses of the increasingly distant beach. If she screamed for help no one would hear.
Tension doesn’t always have to be big. We can connect with readers by giving our characters moments of tension that we all experience in our daily lives. Your protagonist absolutely must make a particular flight. But as paranormal romance writers, we are compelled to make things difficult. We torment him in all kinds of ways: He can’t find his car keys. The drawbridge he must cross to get to the airport is up and what seems to be the slowest boat in the world is passing through. He misses the shuttle bus at the long term parking by seconds. The TSA officer chooses the protagonist to pull out of line and perform a thorough and lengthy search of. Haven’t we all had days like this?
As you write, I suggest to look for a way to ramp up the tension in every scene, whether in a small or big way--it will keep your readers wanting to turn the page.