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How Do I Maintain the Tension in My Novel?

Avoid half-way house language in novels

Keeping up the tension throughout your novel is a crucial ingredient of success for fiction writers.

Having worked so hard to create a compelling story and engaging characters, the last thing you want to do is dilute things with some wishy-washy language.

This sometimes happens with inexperienced authors who lack the confidence to express ideas and thoughts with sufficient strength. This can reduce the tension and give the impression of an uncertain writer who is feeling their way. If this happens frequently in a novel, it’s likely to drag the reader out of the story.

Here are some examples of halfway-house type language which needs some attention.


Clare dared not miss the train as she’d then probably be late on her first day.

She hoped that all those people on the platform were waiting for her train.

From the chatter all around her it sounded like there was a delay.

It seemed as though she’d have a long wait for a taxi.


These examples are relatively easy to resolve by simply using some stronger phraseology:


Clare dared not miss the train and risk being late on her first day.

Lots of people were waiting on the platform – a good sign.

She heard the frustrated chatter all around her. Engineering works…

There were at least a dozen people ahead of her in the taxi queue.


Things get a little more challenging when tentative language is used to avoid head-hopping between narrative viewpoints; we want to avoid giving the impression we know what’s going on inside someone else’s head and so we simply speculate.

Here are some examples:


Jill paused outside the door, looking as though she was having second thoughts.

Joe saw a smartly dressed woman standing on the corner, presumably waiting for him.

As she shook hands with Gary, Karen felt he seemed nervous.

Philip looked at her closely, as if trying to remember where he’d seen her before.

“Want to share a taxi, Clare?” shouted Adele from the front of the queue, appearing pleased to see her.


The author has done the right thing in avoiding a shift in narrative viewpoint. A little bit of cautious language is far preferable to head-hopping.

The good news, though, is that it’s possible to have our cake and eat it; we can use more powerful prose while still avoiding head-hopping. What’s more, we are showing rather than telling so it’s a win-win-win situation:


Jill paused outside the door, taking heavy breaths while looking back the way she’d come.

Joe saw a smartly dressed woman standing on the corner. It had to be her.

As Gary held his hand out, Karen saw it was trembling.

Philip looked at her closely. Had he made the connection?

“Want to share a taxi, Clare?” shouted Adele from the front of the queue, grinning broadly.


The exceptions

There are times when it’s fine to use cautious language in novel writing – when we want to make it clear that our viewpoint character is uncertain.


Rob ducked behind a rock as another shot rang out. Was that his last bullet? He might have one left…

Did she feel the same way about him? Possibly…

There is certainly no hard and fast rule about not using tentative language when writing fiction. What is important is that we are aware that we are doing it and that we are using it in the right situations. By avoiding such terminology when it’s not appropriate we can ensure it will have more impact when used correctly.



Imagine that you’re listening to a comedian. Every time they tell a joke they insist on holding up a big sign saying ‘LAUGH!’

Pretty soon this is going to get quite irritating. You find that you’re spending so much time wondering when they’re going to put the sign up that you’re not listening properly to what they are saying.

You also wonder why they are doing it. Do they think that their jokes are so unfunny that you might not realise you’re supposed to laugh unless prompted? Or do they think the jokes are great but you’re not smart enough to spot them without some help? Either way it’s not going to give you a great impression of them.

All in all, you might eventually find yourself tempted to hold up a sign of your own, this one saying ‘Which way to the bar?’

What’s all this got to do with writing a novel? Simple. The fiction writer who overuses the word 'suddenly' is in danger of becoming the literary equivalent of our friend the comedian. In fact, many authors fall into the trap of overusing ‘suddenly’ in order to signal that something dramatic is happening – rather than relying on the strength of the writing to do this.

In each of the examples below, ‘suddenly’ is superfluous because the verbs used give an impression of drama and immediacy:


Suddenly, a bullet ricocheted off the cliff face, forcing Josh to dive behind a large rock.

Suddenly, the woman screamed and fell to the ground.

Suddenly, Matt broke free and ran back into the forest.

Suddenly, the bull charged towards Sally.

Suddenly, Darren realised what a fool he’d been.


It’s hard for a bullet to ricochet off a cliff face in anything but a sudden and dramatic way. In the same way, the verbs ‘screamed’, ‘broke’, ‘charged’ and ‘realised’ all convey a feeling of immediacy that makes the addition of the word ‘suddenly’ totally unnecessary.

Ironically, 'suddenly' is actually slowing the sentence down by creating an additional word for the reader to negotiate. Like all unnecessary clutter, this risks pulling the reader out of the story, causing them to focus on the way you are writing the novel rather than the story you’re telling.

Moreover, in a similar way to the comedian and their jokes, the author is giving the impression that either they’re not sure the writing is strong enough in its own right, or that they don’t trust the reader to notice that something dramatic is happening.

Every time you want to use 'suddenly', ask yourself if the sentence will work just as well without it. If it will, you don’t need 'suddenly'. If it won’t, you may need to rewrite the sentence (for example, by using a more dramatic verb) so that it’s strong enough to stand on its own two feet.


Was it something you said earlier?

Sometimes the writer may use ‘suddenly’ not simply because the sentence itself is not written strongly enough, but because the preceding lines or paragraphs are not dramatic enough.

The author, in a case like this, has been guilty of overwriting, introducing superfluous text that slows the narrative and waters down the drama. The use of ‘suddenly’ here can be seen almost as a ‘thank you’ to the reader for sticking with it – and an assurance that things are about to liven up.

Let’s take a look at an example:


Gough sat on his leather swivel chair at his mahogany desk, finishing his ninth cigarette of the evening. He glanced at the pictures of his children on his desk, their carefree smiles mocking his current state of mind.

The white telephone sat silently on his desk, defying his silent pleas for it to ring. Gough took another deep breath and looked again at the wall clock. Ten past midnight – he’d never been in the office this late before. Not even as a keen young junior executive twenty years ago ...

Suddenly, the telephone rang.


‘Suddenly’, in effect, is an attempt at a quick-fix when a more fundamental reworking is actually required. Perhaps something along these lines:


Gough sat in his dimly-lit office, discarding another cigarette. Nicotine wasn’t working. He took a deep breath and glanced up at the clock, its hands creeping to the unfamiliar position of ten past midnight.

The phone rang.


In the second example we still get a clear idea of Gough’s state of mind but conveyed in a more streamlined way. We get to the phone ringing more quickly and so there’s no need to add a ‘suddenly’; the reader is already engaged and doesn’t need a prompt.


The exceptions

All fans of Billy Ocean are aware that ‘Suddenly’ can be used emotively and evocatively in song lyrics. The same goes for fiction writing – as long as it is used sparingly and in the right context.

‘Suddenly’ can be an effective way of showing a sudden change of mindset or mood, often as a result of an external act:


‘You never answer my questions,’ said Simon, ‘I don’t understand…’

Sophie reached into her bag and handed him a small, black and white photograph.

Simon looked at it, and suddenly he understood everything.


Ryan walked along the shingle, the lights and sounds of the pier fading away, the crowd of revellers rapidly thinning out until he was all alone.

He walked on in the darkness, enjoying the silence and solitude.

Footsteps scrunched behind him and he spun round, suddenly afraid.


In the second example, some writers might be tempted to change the positioning so that it reads:

Suddenly, footsteps scrunched behind him and he spun round, afraid.


This is much less effective, though. We know from the context that the footsteps are a dramatic and unexpected development and so the use of suddenly is superfluous.

Positioning it in front of ‘afraid’ is much more effective, making clear that Ryan’s fear is the direct result of the footsteps.

Despite these exceptions, great care should still be used over the use of the word 'suddenly' when writing a novel. As well as removing the risk of unnecessary clutter and distraction, this will ensure that ‘suddenly’ is all the more effective when used in the correct context.


Keeping up the tension in fiction writing: Conclusion

We’ve seen how easy it is to inadvertently dilute tension in a novel simply by using one wrong word. While it may be possible to resolve the problem just by removing the word in question, it may be that the preceding sentences or paragraphs also need attention.

Always ensure that your choice of words is working to strengthen your work – and keeping the reader desperate to find out what happens next.

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