What are common techniques used to build tension?

Writing about how authors and poets use literary devices and language to create a mood of tension is one of the quintessential, ageless GCSE questions, so I thought it would be useful to look at an iconic passage from chapter VIII of Great Expectations, in which Pip first meets Miss Havisham. By highlighting some common tension-building tropes, you can bear them in mind for future questions. Firstly, Dickens explicitly makes Pip, who often serves as a surrogate for the reader, fearful. He admits to being ‘half afraid, and very uncomfortable’, when Estella turns away and takes the candle, apparently the only source of light, with her. The contrast between light and dark is often used to create tension, as the two opposing forces carry a variety of connotations. Light and dark are often used to symbolise good and evil, safety and fear, or the known and the unknown. I think the last applies best to Chapter VIII. Comparatively speaking, up until now Pip has felt more or less comfortable and assured in the company of the beautiful Estella and the light of her candle. However, when she leaves, the light is lost, and Pip has to contend with the unknown alone. Despite the many wax candles in Miss Havisham’s room, Dickens is careful to emphasise that ‘No glimpse of daylight was to be seen in it’. The lack of natural light again, evokes a sense of unease and of strangeness in the reader, as if the room itself is incompatible with nature, and all of the vibrant imagery associated with it. This opposition between the naturalness of the banished daylight, and the unnaturalness of the room is another frequent tool used to build tension in literature. Dickens also uses supernatural imagery that would normally be more suited to Gothic than realist literature, but it is remarkably effective here. Pip conflates the vivid childhood memories of a ‘ghastly waxwork’ and ‘a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress’ to form a metaphor casting Miss Havisham as both ‘waxwork and skeleton’, gazing with omniscient ‘dark eyes that moved and looked at me’. One final common technique authors often use to create tension is often abrupt changes in sentence length for dramatic effect – the obvious example in this passage being ‘I should have cried out, if I could’, which comes at the end of a complex paragraph of descriptive language.

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