Emotional Danger for Page-Turning Tension

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Jordan Rosenfeld’s newest craft title, How to Write a Page-Turner: Craft a Story Your Readers Can’t Put Down examines the role of tension in each and every aspect of your novel. She starts with the four biggest elements of tension that should appear throughout a novel: Danger, Conflict, Uncertainty and Withholding. Then, part by part, she winnows down to tension in the individual pieces of a novel—in and between characters, plot, scenes, and on down to the way the sentences are written.

How to Write a Page-Turner

In Chapter 1: Danger, Jordan shares how you can manifest both physical and psychological or emotional danger in your work. In the following excerpt from that chapter, you’ll consider how to connect your readers to the story you’re telling by creating emotionally dangerous situations for your characters and thereby encouraging readers to keep turning those pages.

Danger is a master tension tool. When it’s present, your reader will have a difficult time looking away. What’s more, it’s a good way to build empathy for a character and to keep the story tension high.

Of course, like any element, you don’t want to overdo danger. If your character is always and endlessly in one horrible scenario after another, you may wear your reader down. You want to create just enough, as you’ll see in the examples below, to lock on to the reader’s heart and mind so they don’t stop reading.

Emotional and Psychological Danger

Physical danger is obvious; it needs little backstory or clarification. You can create it out of the circumstances at hand. Psychological and emotional danger are deeper and more complex forms of danger that require planning. They should be true to the dynamics between characters, whereas a natural disaster can have nothing to do with a character’s personality or choices.

What do I mean by psychological danger, anyway? Another phrase for this, as mentioned above, is “emotional danger.” This is when a character stands to gain or lose a person’s trust, respect, love, affection, etc. When another character has the power to affect your protagonist’s marriage, livelihood, or standing in the community, you’ve entered the territory of psychological danger. The same is true when the antagonist terrorizes, shames, or blackmails your protagonist, to name a few examples.

Here’s a good example from Sara Pinborough’s thriller Behind Her Eyes. In it, frumpy, divorced, single mom Louise meets a man named David in a bar and makes out with him. The next day she learns he’s her boss at her new job. That alone is a form of psychological danger—a relationship with a boss could put one’s job in jeopardy. So she tries hard to squash any feelings for him, and then she finds out he’s also married, which creates a whole new kind of emotional danger as affairs come with consequences for multiple people.

But then, one day, on her way to work, she runs into a woman, literally knocking her down. The woman turns out to be David’s wife, Adele. Adele, who doesn’t work and comes across as emotionally fragile, is hungry for a friend, and Louise can’t help herself, so she agrees to hang out with Adele. Adele asks that she not tell David, who she says can be a little controlling.

Pretty soon, David begins to make romantic overtures to Louise again. He describes his marriage as unhappy, and Louise, suffering a major lack of affection, begins an affair with David despite her better intentions.

Do you see where this is going? Louise is now in a secret friendship with David’s wife and in a secret affair with Adele’s husband. Emotional danger is written all over this situation, with many ways it can go wrong for Louise.

Considerations for Creating Psychological or Emotional Danger

Emotional danger should threaten the present and future position of relationships. It’s not really danger if your character has nothing to lose. To create it, you want to tear characters apart, put distance and conflict between characters, cut connections, and threaten loss. Here are two things to keep in mind as you craft danger for your character:

  • The situation should create internal conflict in your character. Emotional danger exists when your character’s sense of internal safety, peace, or normalcy is threatened. This can take many forms—from betrayal to blackmail to gaslighting, where a person doesn’t know if their own thoughts are real.
  • Emotional danger can have long-term repercussions. Trauma and abuse, for example, are forms of emotional danger that can shape behavior, mental health, a person’s ability to be intimate with others, stress responses, and more. Often a character’s flaw or backstory wound stems from early emotional danger, and the main plot can reawaken or trigger this in ways that force your protagonist to act or change.

Whatever form of danger you evoke in your fiction, its presence is sure to heighten a reader’s sense of concern and alarm for your reader, filling the pages with page-turning tension.

Take a look at your WIP. Have you created emotional tension both internally and between your characters? How might this kind of challenge work for your characters and plot? Your characters may not thank you for the problems you create for them, but your readers will.

Editor's side note: Since I’m sharing an excerpt from How to Write a Page-Turner, I can’t let the opportunity pass to share one of my favorite things about this book. As one of the editors, I’ve read it multiple times and every single time, I’ve been entertained. For each type of tension she discusses, Jordan selected the best example/s of that element from current fiction. And of course since she’s showing page-turning tension, I wanted to keep reading the referenced book when the example ended. It was both awesome and really frustrating at the same time—don’t tell the boss but I may have done a little online shopping as a result! My To-Be-Read list grew exponentially while reading this book, and for that, Jordan, I thank you. My wallet on the other hand …

You can learn more about page-turning tension in Jordan’s day-long, pre-conference workshop, How to Write a Page-Turner: Mastering the Art of Tension, at the 2019 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference.

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This exclusive pre-conference workshop kicks off the 2019 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference weekend on Thursday, August 22nd. Seats are limited, so register today!

Jordan E. Rosenfeld is author of three novels: Forged in Grace, Women in Red, and Night Oracle, and five books on writing craft: Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View; A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing PracticeWriting Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion, and Theme (with Martha Alderson)Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time; and Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life (with Rebecca Lawton).

Her freelance journalism and essays have been published in over 300 publications, including The Atlantic, Mental Floss, New York magazine, The New York Times, Ozy, Salon, Scientific American, Writer's Digest, and The Washington Post. She is also a freelance manuscript editor and ghostwriter. Reach her at @JordanRosenfeld on Twitter or jordanrosenfeld.net.