What is it that keeps you turning those pages? Is it the wondering, the guessing, the characters, or is it the building TENSION? How do you create tension in a story? Tension keeps the reader on edge and plowing forward into your novel. You should be building your story’s tension at every turn. However, there are some rules to follow as you do so. Rules that explain when to step on the gas and ratchet it up and rules on when to slow down and give the reader a chance to catch their breath.
Below are some tips on tension and how to use it effectively. These tips lay out a proper plan for building tension. You can use them to help create a riveting storyline every single time. There is also a vlog on building tension that will get you thinking more clearly about this vital aspect of writing. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
How to Build Tension and Heighten the Stakes
By: Jessica Page Morrell
The stakes in fiction matter because stakes create tension. The protagonist’s ultimate happiness, perhaps even his life, depends on the outcome. If the stakes in the story are low, then tension will be weak. The stakes are often linked to inner conflict, as the protagonist wonders if what is at stake is worth it. In these situations, the story line forces him to reconsider his beliefs and values.
It’s easy to recognize the increasing stakes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In the first scenes, the stakes are centered on Santiago’s ability to catch a fish and, by doing so, restore his reputation. The stakes go up as Santiago struggles to reel in the biggest fish he’s ever encountered. Will he land the fish? Will the fish drag him too far from shore? Finally, the stakes go up again as he struggles to survive his ordeal at sea, especially when sharks are drawn to his boat by blood lust.
Hemingway didn’t craft the story around a young man at the top of his game and at peak physical prowess. A fisherman with unwavering confidence and rippling muscles would not inspire the same kind of stakes (and thus tension) as an older man with so much to prove and gain or lose.
There are a number of handy tools in the fiction writing toolbox that can be used to induce and manipulate tension. Let’s look at them here.
Here’s an easy equation for maintaining tension throughout your story: Change equals tension. A novel is a record of a character being threatened and transformed by a series of changes, and as the story progresses these changes become increasingly threatening. The first change—created by the inciting incident—introduces the first dose of tension, but you can never let up pressure on your character.
When a character is threatened by a change, she often reacts badly or with desperation, creating more tension in turn. Change comes into play when new locales, characters or circumstances are introduced, and issues from the past invade the present. Of course, stories also can evolve around changes in the protagonist’s inner world that force her to confront her weaknesses, flaws and fears.
The best changes throw the protagonist off balance, while the ensuing changes keep her tilting further off as she struggles to right herself, but never quite succeeds. If the change tips toward a positive outcome, it needs to eventually turn sour. You might want to keep another formula in mind: Change equals torment. Torment your characters, and tension must result.
It can be helpful when plotting your novel to create a list of changes that you’re planning to inflict on your protagonist. As you orchestrate scenes dramatizing the changes, ask yourself what the worst possible outcome for your protagonist is. Often a character’s worst fears will be the subject of a novel or short story, and these fears can be reduced to a single word: change.
Stories are constructed around a series of surprises and twists. The unexpected unsettles readers, keeps the story from lagging and gives the story line a series of peaks that inject tension and hold the reader’s interest. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her pals finally reach the Emerald City to ask the wizard for help, he yanks the rug out from under them and demands that they bring back the witch’s broomstick. In Romancing the Stone, after Joan Wilder and Jack Colton find the sought-after emerald in the cave and escape the bad guys, they become separated by a river, and she is forced to confront her worst fears about him and face her sister’s kidnappers alone.
When you insert these mini-shocks, naturally tension is introduced. The reader stays involved because he wonders about the ramifications of these surprises. But some stories aren’t structured around surprises. Some stories offer a subtler unfolding, and some (like frame stories) have their endings revealed in the opening. From there, the plot unravels, illuminating how the ending came about. In these cases, the tension must stem from within the character, from motivations or sources that push her to act in certain ways.
Dialogue is not conversation, it is conversation’s greatest hits. Dialogue often is a power struggle, and this exchange demands that one person loses. It’s also loaded with subtext, the river of emotion that flows beneath the words but remains unspoken—and subtext creates tension. Dialogue is a natural place for conflict to play out: Perhaps one character is trying to placate an aggrieved character and failing. Dialogue can feature arguments, wheedling, whining, refusals and head games.
While some dialogue strictly dispenses information, most is an exchange where tension is palpable. Tense dialogue is a tight, more intense version of real-life speech. When you’re editing your own tense dialogue, examine the visual impact of your dialogue sections. Tense dialogue contains lots of short sentences, fragments and white space. If your dialogue is rehashing events that have already happened or is commenting on events that are happening instead of showing them, then it will dilute tension rather than build it.
If your dialogue goes on for pages without pause, it will lack tension, no matter the subject. If your dialogue contains chitchat, comments on the weather, greetings, compliments and other niceties, it also will lack tension. Exchange discussions for confrontations, arguments, teasing and misunderstandings.
If a large portion of your dialogue is staged as experts or sages conveying information, rethink your strategy. While genres such as thrillers and mysteries require experts to convey important data, try to keep these exchanges as brief as possible. Include visual elements, give the characters distinctive voices and add occasional humor in these scenes. Your other option is to reveal this information not in dialogue but in exposition, which is sometimes better suited for imparting facts.
Carl Hiaasen is known for suspense novels that are offbeat and driven by hilarious, edgy dialogue. Skinny Dip evolves around Chaz Perrone, a marine biologist who’s in the midst of an environmental scam. Because he fears that his wife, Joey, has caught on to his shenanigans, he decides to toss her overboard into the Atlantic while they’re on a cruise ship, forgetting that she was a former champion swimmer. She is later plucked from the water by Mick Stranahan. Joey decides to play dead for a while, and Stranahan helps her taunt Perrone while they figure out just how far to push him. Their mischief includes Stranahan making a series of phone calls designed to rattle Perrone:
Perrone said, “We should get together, you and me.”
“We’re talking now,” Stranahan said. “You tossed your beloved into the Atlantic Ocean. I’m curious to hear an explanation.”
“I didn’t push her. She fell.”
“That’s not what I saw.”
“Listen to me,” Perrone pleaded, but his voice trailed away.
“We should do this in person.”
“Do what? There’s eighteen hundred dollars in your checking account,” Stranahan said. “That’s pitiful.”
“I can get more,” Perrone blurted. Then, warily: “How’d you know what I have in the bank?”
Hiaasen’s dialogue is lively, conveyed by colorful characters using humor, fragments and short exchanges. The final words linger, creating an extra dose of tension and pushing the reader into the next scene.
All fiction evolves around revelations. When a reader first meets your protagonist, the reader knows nothing about him. The experience is akin to that of meeting a stranger at a party; the character, as you approach him, is a blank slate. After you chat for a few minutes, you learn he’s a stockbroker or a journalist or a barista at Starbucks. You discover his age or approximate age, whether he’s clever or dull, educated or illiterate, witty or serious, single or married, happy or depressed, calm or agitated.
When a reader encounters your protagonist, he’s a stranger, but once the reader comes to know his dominant personality traits, she will be able to form opinions based on his dialogue and thoughts and actions. With each page, the reader discovers the character’s flaws and strengths, his self-concept and desires, the influences from his past and, most of all, his secrets. And as each detail, each secret, is exposed, the tension mounts, as does the reader’s vested interest in your protagonist.
The most interesting characters have secrets or some intrigue that they don’t want people to know about. Perhaps your protagonist cheated on his wife and the subsequent divorce was his fault. Perhaps when he was 5, his father abandoned the family, and he’s never been able to recover from that loss. Or perhaps he is ashamed of a childhood trauma, or of his need to be mothered by women.
This is not to say that all characters are, at their core, troubled personalities. The point is that perfect people are boring and lack tension. Characters must have emotional needs, wounds and skeletons in the closet. Factors like these will cause tension and keep the reader interested until the end.
Readers are nosy; they want to delve into a character’s private affairs. In the real world, we’re rarely able to snoop to our heart’s content. In fiction, we have a license to look around, to open up the secret drawers and hiding places. Be sure to give your readers a chance to do just that.
QUICK TIP: Don’t Forget to Breathe
While all good fiction is imbued with tension and suspense, it requires ebbs and flows to vary the level of tension throughout the story. To achieve this, you need to intersperse breathers, where you turn down the tension a notch, throughout your high-tension scenes. The number of breathers you should use depends on both the needs of your story and the demands of your genre.
A romance, for instance, requires more breathers than many other genres because it’s centered on characters’ emotions and inner conflict; by nature, the reader wants to spend time exploring these emotions. So in a romance, breathers might take the form of dialogue with a trusted confidant, character thoughts or sequel scenes.
Thrillers, on the other hand, keep the tension ratcheted up. Still, breathers appear most often in the form of transitions that serve the function of changing locations or relaying important data.
No matter the genre, the best breathers appear natural to the story line and the character’s personality, and might include eating a meal, walking the dog, straightening the office or attending a party. Because all fiction contains peaks and valleys, you’ll want to make sure the lulls of the story don’t stop the momentum, but instead simply provide a pause or turn the drama down a notch or two. Sometimes these lulls are the calm before the storm. If so, be sure to make the action that follows the lull doubly intense.
EXERCISE: Editing for Tension
The most tense fiction is pared down to the essentials, with every word in every sentence having a distinct purpose, every sentence in every paragraph being necessary to the whole, and every scene contributing to the story line. Every writer has a different approach to editing, but generally it’s best to edit in stages, examining separate elements or effects in each stage of editing.
No matter your system, your goal should be to decide what’s essential and what’s gratuitous to—or otherwise a digression from—the essence of your story. Begin by casting an eye at overall flow and pacing, both of which are linked to tension. Consider these questions:
- Have you begun the story at the last possible moment?
• Does the opening create intense curiosity?
• Is there a single dramatic question that focuses the story?
• Is the story overpopulated?
• Does the story locale contribute to the tension?
• Are the subplots a source of tension?
• Do the flashbacks contain tension, or do they meander backward in time?
• Is there a major reversal or surprise midway?
• Is there too little or too much foreshadowing?
• Have you withheld information from the reader until the last moment?
• Are the stakes high and the consequences for failure dreadful?
How to create tension in writing: 8 methods
Suspense and tension are essential for a page-turner. What are some techniques writers use for increasing tension in the rising action of a story or novel? Read these tips to build tension that keeps your reader intrigued and invested in your story arcs:
First, what is narrative tension?
The word ‘tension’ itself comes from the latin meaning ‘to stretch’ (OED). When things stretch too far, they snap or break. It’s the same in a tense relationship, conflict, or story scenario. Tension is a state of uncertainty, and the anxiety it attracts. It’s like watching a tightrope walker wobble slowly on a thin line between mountain peaks.
The multiple definitions of ‘tension’ remind us of the many forms of tension you can create in a story. Definitions (via the Oxford English Dictionary) include:
- The state of being stretched tight
- Mental or emotional strain
- A strained political or social state or relationship
- A relationship between ideas or qualities with conflicting demands or implications
A scene involving a tightrope walker gives us the tension of the first definition, as well as the second. The rope is stretched tight. The walker has the psychological strain of focusing on the task. We have the emotional strain of hoping she doesn’t fall.
In a relationship where two characters have conflicting demands or desires, we see mental or emotional strain when opposition devolves into conflict.
Keeping these definitions in mind, let’s examine techniques to build tension in your writing:
- Keep adding complications to characters’ arcs
Raising the stakes and complicating the situation for your protagonist is one of the most basic ways to create and maintain tension in a novel.
In a thriller or crime novel, particularly, the situation typically grows increasingly dire for the protagonist. Escalating tension is one of the four most important factors of writing effective suspense, so your hero’s (or anti-hero’s) efforts to fix problems should sometimes fail.
For example, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic crime novel Crime and Punishment (1866) explores the tragedy that unfolds when a penniless, troubled student murders a greedy pawnbroker. The murder scene occurs early in the novel. Yet the protagonist, Raskolnikov, is not aware that the victim’s sister, Lizaveta, has entered the victim’s apartment while he is rummaging for valuables to sell:
Suddenly he jumped up, seized the axe and ran out of the bedroom.
In the middle of the room stood Lizaveta with a big bundle in her arms. She was gazing in stupefaction at her murdered sister, white as a sheet and seeming not to have the strength to cry out. (p. 71)
The cliched metaphor ‘white as a sheet’ aside, this complication effectively adds tension. Raskolnikov has justified murdering the pawnbroker to himself, yet there is no way even he can justify killing her generous, ‘innocent’ (by his standards) sister.
Dostoevsky introduces two kinds of tension: tension between Raskolnikov’s beliefs (his rationalization of his deeds falls apart as Lizaveta cannot fit it) and the tension of the emotional and mental strain resulting from his committing double murder.
Dostoevsky piles on even further tension as we learn that handymen were renovating a nearby apartment and thus there were possible witnesses to Raskolnikov’s departure. These events add tension due to dramatic unknowns and the potential impact they might still have. We wonder how things will turn out and Dostoevsky uses this uncertainty to create tension and dread.
Here are some other points to keep in mind when you are using complications to build tension:
- Balance high dramatic tension with calmer scenes
When you create obstacles for characters that build tension, they should be of different sizes. Varying the amount of tension added by complications will create variety and small climaxes and releases that make the main conflicts in your novel that much more powerful. Your reader will have questions they need more urgently answered than others. As writer Lee Child says in The New York Times, ‘As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer.’
When reviewing a first draft, it’s a good idea to take notes on where you have included scenes that introduce additional tension and complications. Make sure the larger-stake issues are not all introduced and solved well before the climax. In fact, a climax can introduce one or more additional complications that keep suspense taut to the end of your story.
In addition to varying the degree of tension you introduce in conflict and suspenseful scenes, alternate tense scenes or sequences with calmer moments. Contrast is key to keeping your reader interested. A perpetual state of suspense is a difficult , stress-laden emotional state to maintain.
In very short novels that have simple stories set within a short period of time, it might be possible to keep the tension high throughout, but more often, both your reader and protagonists may need time to catch their breath. For example, in Tolkien’s LOTR cycle, after the stressful, life-and-death conflict scene as his heroes pass through the Mines of Moria, we read of their stay in the Elves’ peaceful land of Lothlórien. This story segment gives us a break from the emotional intensity of the preceding action.
- Draw story tension from varied places
When we think about creating tension in storytelling, we generally think in terms of protagonists and antagonists; heroes and villains. But remember to create moments of tension between characters who otherwise get along, as well as internal tension.
For example, in a romance novel, in addition to the conflicts that keep the protagonist apart from their love interest, they might have additional conflicts with their sister or best friend. Perhaps your character is moody or glum about their lover’s distance or silence and snaps at others. Secondary, lesser or passing tensions help to keep subplots as interesting as main story and character arcs.
Character-driven TV thrillers offer many examples of effective tension building. In Showtime’s political thriller series Homeland, the main character, Carrie, chooses to go abroad on dangerous CIA assignments. This is partially due to her committed, emotional investment in her work. Yet she also does so to avoid her fear of being an unfit parent to her child, as she struggles with her mental health. This creates a sense of there being unresolved internal conflicts in her life that leave viewers staying on for resolution. The story’s tension is strong, even when it’s a solo scene, for this reason.
- Use reversals, twists and revelations effectively
These are all excellent ways to heighten tension in a novel.
Some incidents may be two or all three of these things at the same time. For example, the moment that Luke Skywalker learns the infamous, shocking truth about Darth Vader, the main villain in George Lucas’s Star Wars, is both a twist and a revelation. We don’t see this coming although it has been set up from the start in a number of ways.
A famous reversal from classic cinema comes near the end of Casablanca when Ilsa learns Rick is not coming with her. A well-timed plot twist may plunge your characters into uncertainties that we as readers (or viewers) experience as tense suspense.
- Appeal to readers’ emotions
One important point to keep in mind regarding tension is that it is not the size of the stakes but how invested the reader is in those stakes that matters. When deciding how to create tension in your plot, include emotion. Well-developed characters are critical for readers to become emotionally invested. Most passionate readers know the feeling of finishing a good book and feeling bereft without characters who came to feel like friends. Developing believable and engaging characters who are invested in their goals may seem unrelated to the task of building tension, but it is actually one of the most essential elements for creating this effect.
How else can you create tension in your writing?
- Increase tension in your writing by making characters active
Active characters make things happen. They react, but they are also proactive. Passive characters let things happen to them. Passive characters are usually not the protagonist (except in tragedies), and they rarely create tension through outward action. Internal conflicts are usually the primary source of tension where these fictional characters are concerned.
Readers tend to like active characters better than passive characters. It’s hard to have much sympathy for characters who simply sit and wait for fate to overtake them.
When active characters keep trying to solve their problems and keep taking missteps, story tension mounts. In a historical romance where two characters are separated by a work assignment, a war or another force, they might write letters, for example. They actively try to overcome the obstacle.
Scenarios like these introduce more opportunities for mishaps and tension. You could, for example, have an entire chapter telling the story of a love letter’s progress as it’s misplaced, wrongfully delivered, returned to sender, and finally reaches its destination. Here, the tension is still between two characters but is shifted onto their communication itself and whether or not it reaches its target.
- Avoid tension destroyers
There are a few things you should not do or only do sparingly in order to maintain tension:
- Don’t overdo backstory. Your characters had lives before the story started, and sometimes it is necessary to explain your character’s psychology and even to build tension by informing your readers of some of that history. However, too much backstory may drag your novel to a halt
- Don’t tell the reader everything. Tighten your writing. You might have noticed that people in movies and TV shows rarely say goodbye; they just hang up the phone. Of course, you wouldn’t do this in real life, but in a movie, it cuts any fat from the scene. Books are no different. Your reader doesn’t need to have every line of dialogue two characters speak or to know how someone got from one place to another. Stick to key information
- Don’t waste time idling. The tension might be building quickly or very slowly, but the story should always be moving forward in some way, eliciting questions of ‘what next?’ Whenever you write a scene, ask yourself ‘what key piece of the whole does this contribute?’
- Ground your tension in conflicts that make sense for your genre
All novels need tension, but different types of stories produce tension from different sources.
The main tension in a romance novel will come from whether or not the protagonist and the love interest get together, or struggles they face with each other or facing external events. The main tension in a crime novel involves solving the mystery or catching a criminal. In a similar way to the tip about steadily raising the stakes, this may seem like an obvious observation. Yet often a novel that falls flat has forgotten to focus on what should be the main source of tension, the most urgent unknown.
Once you’ve made certain that you have chosen an effective main source of tension, you can also look to other genre elements to create secondary tension. Your detective in a mystery novel might also be struggling with a romantic relationship. Characters fighting to save their home in a family saga might deal with a murder. Just be sure that you don’t let secondary sources of tension seem like they usurp and detract from the main conflicts of your story.
Structuring your story well is vital if you want to create masterful tension. Try the structured Now Novel process to create a novel outline and stay focused on key, tension-building events.