The Crime Writers’ Association

Building Tension in Your Writing by John Dean

As part of my work, I’m often hired to assess aspiring authors’ manuscripts, including for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Criminal Critiques service, and one of the recurring themes that crops up in the feedback that I give is how to build tension.

Tension is crucial in crime fiction but how do you create it? It’s a real challenge for authors. I always think that, to achieve it, the writer should:

* Put the reader in the situation. What does it feel like to be there?

* Use the things at their disposal – the senses: is a place cold, is it creepy, is it dark, does it smell rank?

* Create a sense of immediacy. Make the reader feel the events. Focus on people and their feelings in order to make the reader feel as if he or she is there as well; is your character affected; is a brave character suddenly scared, is a cool character rendered panicky?

* Create word pictures. Use imagery to write visually. Write the story as you see it. I think that good storytellers should write like film-makers, showing the reader what they see through the lens

* Use dialogue to set the pace. Good dialogue carries dramatic impact, advances the story and develops character

The key to all of this is to keep it simple – do not overdo it, not too flowery, nothing that will slow things down. Good writing relies on a judicious selection of detail and that leads to pace.

Pace is key to creating tension. As a writer, I have learned the hard way about the need to write with pace, through watching where my editors down the years have deleted text to reduce slow passages. Each time they do it, it improves me as a writer. You never stop learning!

As a creative writing teacher, I’ve worked with several writers over the years who fell into the same trap. They created pace, kept the story moving, drew the reader in, then damaged it by putting in unnecessary detail, descriptions, too much back story and so on. Such material has its place but not when you’re trying to keep things moving.

The result is passages when the story starts to gather pace then slows down again, which interrupts the narrative flow so that when we return to the story it’s like going from a standing start. Think driving in a slow-moving motorway traffic jam and the frustrations you feel when the queue moves then grinds to a halt again. Similarly, slow things down too many times and the reader becomes frustrated and loses interest. With some readers, do it even once and they start to doubt your ability as a storyteller.

Learning how to write a narrative with the right pace is one of the most crucial writing skills. Get it wrong and you are seriously jeopardising your chances of success. Get it right and you hook your reader.

That’s not to say that there is not a place for slower passages. There is. I read a terrific piece of advice a few years ago from an author who said that, if you really want to grasp how to write a narrative with the correct pace, think of writing a story as if you were taking a trip down a river in a boat. You need plenty of white water for excitement but you also need calmer stretches in between for the readers to draw breath and take in the scenery.

Tension builds, so write in spikes – tension, relax, tension, relax. Incident, quieter passage, incident. As your story comes to an end, forego the quieter passage and build the tension to a crescendo.

And in case you still doubt the importance of pace, I recently read a quote from a couple of literary agents who said that their agency receives, on average, about twelve thousand pieces of mail a year, 95 per cent of which it rejects, the vast majority because the pacing of the story is off.

And every writer craves being in that five per cent that is accepted!


John Dean’s new crime novel, Death List (The Book Folks), is out and available at:


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