How to Build Tension in Your Spy Novel by @The_GrayTower #mystery

The following is syndicated from and is posted here with permission.

Spies are cool, right?

They slip into high-security facilities easier than I can into a pair of skinny jeans, they dance their asses off while tracking an enemy across the ballroom floor, and they have a never-ending arsenal of gadgets to get them out of tight spots. And they hardly ever have a bad hair day.

So what else is needed? Tension? We don’t need no stinkin’ tension…or, do we?
In common usage, tension refers to a sense of heightened involvement, uncertainty, and interest an audience experiences as the climax of the action approaches.
Tension is an element that every story can use, but it’s especially useful for a spy novel. Why? Well think about it, not every single scene is going to involve a gun fight or your protagonist being thrown out of a window. However, you want to keep the pace–and the reader’s interest.

Building on tension is perfect because a huge part of spying is establishing rapport with people, being able to draw out information (and trust) through conversation and interaction, and outsmarting the foe in order to accomplish the mission and live to see another day.

Many of the questions we have in our heads as we cozy up with an espionage tale run along these lines:

Is Sam Spy going to get caught? How will he get out of that situation without causing a scene? I wonder if he trusts Joe, because I don’t! Why is he letting Jane seduce him? He’s going to wake up with a gun in his face…

We are constantly wondering who’s going to backstab Sam Spy or shoot him in the chest, if he’ll succeed or fail miserably at his mission, and whether or not that invitation to dinner is a trap (and if it is a trap and he knows it, what’s his counter-plan?). The environment of a spy novel is ripe for tension. Weave this throughout your scenes and something that seems ordinary can have your reader on the edge of her seat (and turning those pages).

In chapter four of The Tower’s Alchemist, Isabella sits down with her host, Renée, for breakfast. What begins as pastries and coffee between two women turns into a tense scene as two Gestapo agents pull up to the house. Renée is forced to usher Isabella toward the back, knowing good and well that this could mean arrest and a trip to the concentration camp.

The agents barge in and interrogate Renée, and search the house room by room. The looming question is whether or not they’ll discover Isabella, and if they do, would she be willing to fight them right there and then? The tension is raised even higher when Agent Karsten notices the second coffee cup and plate on the table and knows for a fact someone else had been in the house, even if he couldn’t locate the other person.

How do the women get out of this one? (Snag a copy of the book for yourself and find out ;) ).

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Here are a few tips to building tension in your spy novel:
  • Heighten involvement–your protagonist must be sympathetic–someone the audience cares about. This heightens their emotional involvement in the story and fuels their fears and questions (think of the “Sam Spy” example earlier used). When your protagonist is in danger, there’s going to be heightened involvement and consequently more tension.
  • Heighten uncertainty–if you already know how a scene is going to turn out, then things become predictable and boring. However when Sam Spy’s genius plan goes wrong and people get killed, when his contact is abducted before he can deliver vital information, or he’s betrayed by an ally, it appeals to our fear of failure (and seeing our hero fail), and the uncertainty and danger will keep the reader engaged.
  • Heighten interest–interesting scenes are satisfying, because we feel satisfied in grasping some knowledge or emotional connection from them. In a novel, interest can be evoked through conflict, but also extends to characters (their personalities, dialogue, and actions), as well as the setting. A mysterious spy whose loyalties are unknown, an exotic location, or a cool and collected villain who’s just as smart as Sam Spy can add an interesting element to the story which will satisfy the reader as well as whet their appetite for more.

These are by no means the only ways to build tension, but they are definitely at the top of my list. Readers, what makes a scene or book tense for you? Writers, do you have any tips you’ve picked up along the way?