I think if I could not only answer that question but act on it all the time, I’d be writing bestsellers. But even without that ability, I have some ideas that I thought I’d share with anyone who’s interested.
There are lots of kinds of tension. In Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight, for instance, it’s sexual tension. She does a great job of making the reader feel the electricity between Bella and Edward while postponing their ability to act upon it. The reader keeps turning the pages because she wants that kiss, that contact, that she knows is coming.
Sexual tension can drive romances, too, and is even present (I think) in many of Jane Austen’s novels. The trick is how to put it on the page. It’s easy to overdo, and then it isn’t as effective. And it must be paid off, or your reader will throw your book across the room.
Dramatic tension is a little more complex. It’s closely involved with the pace of a novel to the point that it can be hard to separate. Dramatic tension might be represented by a formula like this:
Protagonist want/need + obstacle in achieving it = tension
You might draw out the tension by adding obstacles. Think about your average crime thriller TV show:
I: A crime is committed.
II: Police (or whoever) want to solve the crime.
III: Numerous attempts to do so are thwarted by different circumstances.
IV: Police gradually get closer to solving the crime. The closer they get without solving it, the more intense the tension.
V: Crime is solved. Viewer relaxes.
Obviously, step five can only happen at the very end, or all tension will dissipate and the story will lose its drive.
2. Acceleration and deceleration
So, maybe that sounds a little like stating the obvious, since we’re talking about forward movement. But acceleration in a novel can be achieved through manipulation of your craft. Use increasingly short scenes to build up to a moment, then ease off and start again. But the scenes have to intensify, or you’ll simply be doing the same thing over and over, and your reader will start to yawn. Within themselves, the scenes have to have a degree of tension. Forget that long exposition of a character brushing and flossing his teeth. We may find out he’s OCD, but we’ll put the book down before we discover why it matters.
Of course, there are always exceptions. And you can probably point to numerous classic novels that don’t obey these page-turner rules. Think of all the exposition about whaling in Moby Dick, for instance. On the other hand, The House of the Seven Gables starts right off with a mysterious death and piles on the tension and obstacles, making it (in my view) a very satisfying read.
This is really a continuation of number 2. Every scene in a novel should contain action. That doesn’t mean every scene has to have a gunfight, or a robbery, or even a kiss. But something has to happen that advances the plot. Character exposition on its own doesn’t advance a plot. Character exposition should occur alongside the plot points, and be woven in so seamlessly that your reader forgets you, the author, and just gets completely involved in the story.
This is a very superficial view, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been editing my clients’ manuscripts. Let me know what you think!