A story needs to have tension. It is one thing to know that and another to take advantage of the various ways that you can add necessary tension. Where to start?
Start with a Simple Seeming Problem
The very first place to start creating tension for your story and trouble for your character is a simple seeming problem. What is it that your character wants? Luke wants off Tatooine. The mouse wants a cookie. Harry wants relief from the Dursleys.
Next Have Your Character Realize that They Want Something More
One way to do this is by giving your character what they thought they wanted. Luke has a way off Tatooine but it comes at the expense of his family. When the mouse gets a cookie, it is going to want a glass of milk. Harry escapes the Dursleys by going to Hogwarts and realizing that he wants to truly belong.
But There Are Obstacles and Complications
Don’t make it easy for your character. Obstacles and complications get in the way. Each time they achieve one thing, they find themselves struggling for something else. On and on they fight! This is how you keep the tension coming. But make the reader feel like the character is going to succeed or they may quit reading.
Find Ways to Let the Reader Know Trouble Is Coming
When you do this, you aren’t creating tension for your character but you are leaking the tension to your audience. “Hey, look! Things are going to happen.” Writers do this in a variety of ways. Sometimes they use the setting as a whole and specific setting details to add a feeling of dread. Think about the number of stories set in old houses, drafty inns, and cemeteries. I’ve read stories set in asylums turned into resorts, wastelands, and arid deserts. None of these are places that you expect light cheery things to happen.
Even if your setting as a whole doesn’t create tension, setting details can. You might write about tree branches like grasping fingers, rooms that are cold as a crypt, or tables set with funerial lilies. Yes, those are all heavy handed but they are one way to foreshadow negative events before they happen.
Keep your reader engaged by letting them know that something is coming if they just turn the page.