Something you can use to build tension in your story is a technique called a plot-hyper. A plot-hyper is exactly what it sounds like; something that hypes up the plot. An easy example would be the old horror movie cliché of a cat suddenly jumping out from behind a curtain. The purpose of this technique is to add elements of uncertainty and builds tension through misdirection.
For instance, the cat jumping out takes your mind off what the protagonist was doing. But it also raises the anxiety in the scene by throwing in an unexpected event or circumstance. So once the protagonist goes back to progressing forward in the scene, the reader will feel the tension from the worry of what may come next. And what is really nice is that if done correctly, this technique can easily be used to impact your story in a significant way. Especially when writing a thriller or horror story.
The other aspect of using a plot-hyper to build tension is the subtlety and misdirection it creates. These two things move the story along in a way the reader may not notice at first. But if they go back they’ll be able to pick up on some of the clues you’ve laid out in your story. The trick is to make it so these clues don’t stick out like a sore thumb. but aren’t so well hidden that the reader won’t catch them, either.
The reason for using subtlety and misdirection is to keep the reader guessing. The longer you have their attention, the more time they’re going to spend reading your work. Using these tools can help you build the action and suspense a good story needs. But these aren’t just for genre fiction. You can use them in varying degrees with any work. And depending on the story you’re telling, sometimes less is more.
A good example of subtlety and misdirection as a means to build tension would be the ending of A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. I won’t give away the ending, (even thought the novel was published in 1929) but I will say the story isn’t overly dramatic. Yet, Hemingway is able to build an incredible amount of tension without resorting to gimmicks or crazy plot devices.
You can’t just throw these elements into a story, though. There are certain things you need to do to make sure subtlety and misdirection work with the plot-hyper. You must offer only the information that is pertinent and has a point to your story. Meaning, don’t give everything away all at once. Only give the crucial information the reader needs to move the story forward, but leave some things for them to figure out on their own.
You must do this in a way that forces the reader to deduce the relevance of the information you’re giving them. For instance, let’s say two of your characters have a discussion about one of their cars not working properly. Will this come up later? Will the car breaking down become a major plot device later on? This would be something you’d want to hint at but not specifically give away. Place it in the back of the reader’s mind so if it does come up later on, they’ll scream “Oh, yeah! I knew he should have got that damn car fixed!”
And remember, highlight the information needed for the plot, but make sure it feels like a natural growth of the conversation when giving out said information. You don’t want it to be too easy to spot. That takes out all the fun. On the flip side, you also don’t want to bury the information so it’s too hard for the reader to find. That will just frustrate the reader and make them think they were tricked. A good example of what not to do would be any horror/thriller movie where the evil murderer turned out to be someone who was never or barely mentioned before the big reveal. That’s just lame!
If you’re able to master some of these tools and storytelling devices, you’ll go a long way in improving your writing.
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