SCRATCHING THE TENSION-JUNKIE ITCH: GIVING THE READER A REASON TO TURN PAGES
Why do people read? What makes someone stay up late, turning pages? The easy answer is curiosity. But all writers wrestle with how to create it. All writers toil to make it look effortless.
Humans are tension junkies. We’ve survived through the millennia by getting in and out of trouble. We follow our hunches until they lead us into situations that we need to solve or escape. This dynamic is so intrinsic to the human experience that we’ve become addicted to it. We seek it out. The goal of the writer, then, is to create this dynamic, bearing in mind that curiosity is not static. As one question is answered, another must present itself.
There’s a famous scene in the movie La Femme Nikita where assassin-in-training Nikita thinks she’s going out to dinner with her handler. She’s touched that Bob is taking her to a chic restaurant. She’s even more touched when he hands her a gift. But the gift turns out to be a gun, and the dinner turns out to be her final test. Bob orders her to kill the foreign diplomat at the next table. He tells her she can escape through an open window in the bathroom. Then he leaves.
Nikita reels, grappling with her disappointment and fear. But she pulls herself together, makes the hit, and then sprints to the bathroom. With the diplomat’s bodyguards giving chase, she opens the curtains to find there isn’t a window. There’s a brick wall. Even though she’s angry and scared, she cannot despair. She needs to improvise. She tries sneaking through the restaurant’s bustling kitchen, but the guards catch up with her there, leading to a gunfight. She’s pinned down. She’s woefully outnumbered. One of the guards even has a grenade launcher. We think Nikita is toast. But she sees a laundry chute and maybe, just maybe, she can use it to escape. She lunges at it, falling down through the chute as the kitchen behind her erupts in flames. She lands in a large laundry cart in an alley, pushes herself free. And runs.
This scene is a perfect example of how a good storyteller creates tension. As one problem is solved, the next arises, and so on. Our hero must keep adapting to survive. Nikita’s hope of a nice dinner is thwarted when she learns she won’t be eating appetizers. Instead, she’ll be making a hit. She needs to regroup, and does, deciding that she’s going through with the job. But after accomplishing that goal, her next goal (escaping through the window) is thwarted. Again, she must improvise. We keep watching, rooting for her to find her way out of one seemingly intractable situation after another. We cannot look away.
In this way, reading is like riding a roller coaster. People ride roller coasters to simulate the risk of death without actually putting themselves in peril. The heightened experience of having survived a brush with death keeps people coming back for more. People read books to experience jeopardy, too, from the safety of their couch. They read to vicariously experience getting in and out of trouble.
This isn’t to say that all jeopardy must be high-stakes drama. In mysteries, the tools for sparking curiosity are clues and suspense. In a romance, the emotional clues of the object of the protagonist’s desire may keep the reader guessing. In literary fiction, the mysteries of emotion and memory are what compel the reader to turn pages. But whatever the genre, the storyteller must create and scratch the tension-junkie itch. We must be invested in the goal, whatever it is, and we must root for the protagonist to get to it, even as we see her thwarted.
And this is what keeps us hooked.
C.E. Tobisman is the author of a series of legal thrillers (Doubt, Proof), published by Thomas & Mercer. Doubt debuted at #2 in the entire Amazon Kindle store in 2016. Proof published in June 2017 to strong reviews and solid performance. In addition to writing thrillers, Tobisman is a practicing attorney. She lives in Los Angeles with her wife, three kids, and one dog.