Bad to Worse to Impending Disaster: Escalating tension creates suspense

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We all know that suspense builds as danger approaches. Expanding on that concept, a suspenseful story puts characters that the reader cares about in jeopardy. It makes for a great scene or, even better, a page-turning chapter.

Now, to create suspense in the novel as a whole, the author must gradually turn-up the heat. There’s an arc that leads the plot upwards on the Bad to Worse to Impending Disaster escalator. So, if the Princess is abducted in Act 1 (Bad), then the hero must risk his life to save her in Act 2 (Worse), until finally the entire Kingdom may fall if they don’t return in time in Act 3 (Impending Disaster). If the tension doesn’t escalate, the book will run out of steam.

 

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Tension doesn’t always have to be bloody life or death scenarios though. Depending on the genre, suspense can just as easily build through emotional, romantic or economic threats. The shy romantic hero doesn’t have the courage to profess his true feelings to the love of his life in Act 1 (Bad), then just as he’s about to tell her, a new suitor comes on the scene in Act 2 (Worse), until finally, in Act 3, the girl and the new suitor are about to get married and the romantic hero will lose her forever (Impending Disaster).

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Regardless of the genre, the reader must feel that the Protagonist is headed toward something terrible. Impending Disaster is just a page or two away. That’s tension.

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