Last month, as I was out for a walk, I saw a heron. I was going to continue on my walk after watching for a moment, but it’s beak plunged into the water and it pulled out a fish. A big fish. It didn’t swallow it, but took a step and turned 180 degrees, holding tight to the fish. I wondered if the fish would wriggle away or how the heron could eat something that was probably larger than it typically ate. I continued to watch and take photos, waiting.
Sometimes when I’m browsing in a library or book store, I open a book to a random page and read a few sentences. For several years, I’ve wondered what I’m looking for in that random page. Also, once I’ve begun reading, what pulls me forward and keeps me involved in the story?
Finally, I figured it out: voice and tension.
The heron and the suspense of what would happen to the fish kept me engaged and is a type of tension. Finally, after four minutes, it swallowed the fish. The story had ended, and I continued on my walk.
I might continue reading because of great prose or I love the character or I’m interested in the story. But if there isn’t enough tension (for the type of book) I tend to set the book aside.
Tension is an imbalance. Stories will contain many layers of tension, and these imbalances creates a desire in the characters (and in readers) for the imbalance(s) to be corrected or rebalanced. Tension creates anxiety. It catches and maintains our attention while we turn page after page, looking for decisions and changes, and at the end of the story the tension dissipates and we experience catharsis and the dénouement.
A few years ago, I spent some time examining the craft element of how writers craft tension. This article combines a series of several revised blog posts from 2011 (back when we posted almost every weekday). The original articles were “Tension and Character,” “Tension and Plot,” and “Tension on the page or Micro-tension.”
Tension and Character
Here are four common ways a writer creates tension on a character level.
The character grows and develops throughout the story (internal arc) and interacts with other characters and the environment (outer arc); these struggles create suspense and tension. A reader should feel the emotions and struggles of the character. Struggles—both internal and external to the character—create tension. Each struggle (which is repeated over and over in a story) leads to the next tension builder . . .
The character must make choices, often hard, challenging choices. The process of choosing produces tension.
Big choices create tension.
Little choices create tension.
Hard choices create tension.
All choices add tension to the story. At some point the character takes action. This leads to more tension: what will the result of the choice be? Often the choice propels the character forward into a greater challenge and more tension.
- Flawed character
Great characters are flawed and imperfect individuals. There are many reasons to create flaws in a character. One benefit of a flawed character is that the reader can see the flaw and sense the choices the character might make, the reader sensing that the flaw will create all sorts of challenges. Even though we can see it coming– metaphorically the car driving toward the edge of the cliff–we keep reading, hoping that maybe this time the character’s flaw won’t come into play. A flawed character also allows for surprise, which is another way of creating tension in a story.
The character wants something she doesn’t have. This gap creates tension. Intense desire = intense tension. There will be an overall desire or want that is a throughline of the story as well as smaller desires (often goals) in each scene.
Building tension at a character level is critical as we craft our stories. These types of tensions help flesh out characters and bring them to life.
Tension and Plot
A fast-paced adventure story. Thrillers, suspense novels. All are packed-packed-packed with tension.
“Quiet” novels, nonfiction, humor, school stories. These are also filled with tension.
Macro tension is what we most often think of when we think of tension in plot. Tension can arise from questions—questions the reader is asking and questions the characters ask themselves.
A big question is: What will the character do now?
Other big questions are: What happens? What happens to the characters? How does it end?
The larger story questions are macro-tension.
How do we create this tension, a page-turner story with plot? There are many ways. Here are a few:
The big story question sets up the tension (and the level and type of tensions) in a story. During early revisions (or better yet, during the initial writing of the story) a writer can adjust the premise to insure sufficient tension. Something needs to happen in the book, something interesting and challenging.
2. Plot design
The tension in most books will become more intense as the story progresses. (There are exceptions of course.) Also, there is an inverse relation between tension and character comfort.
The bigger the stakes, the higher the tension. Note: not every book needs to be a life and death thriller. To a child character wanting a friend on the first day of school, the stakes of sitting alone can be huge to that character. Stakes create tension because the reader worries about the character(s).
Tension comes from relationships between characters. Conflict will be between both the protagonist and antagonist, as well as between the protagonist and her friends and others in her life. Relationships, the bumps, the head-on wrecks—all sorts of interactions create tension on a story level.
- Complications and obstacles
Complications and obstacles thwart the character from getting what she wants. These usually will add tension at the scene or chapter level, or for a section of the book.
Subplots keep the reader invested and reading forward while anxiously awaiting the answer to the big story question of how does it end. Subplots are one way to keep the middle of a story from sagging (losing tension.) Each subplot will have an arc of its own with its corresponding tensions.
Tension in plots make books exciting to read and let us see characters in action. As writers we control the pacing by how we craft the tensions in our stories. All stories can have intense page-turning tension, whether or not the book is a thriller or a “quiet” school story.
Tension on the Page or Micro-tension
There is another area of tension writers use in crafting the story: tension on the page. This micro-tension includes a diverse set of techniques:
Cliffhangers at the end of chapters and scenes add tension and encourage the reader to keep reading.
Hook should appear as first lines of chapters and scenes and at the beginning of a book–these should create a feeling of tension in the reader, a type of tension that makes them want to know more.
This is the tension on the actual page. The tension of a dialogue or a sentence or even a phrase engages the reader. This tension makes page (or paragraph) valuable so the reader won’t skip it to what they feel is worth reading. Micro-tension includes small questions that arise and also white space (elision). This tension on each page encourages the reader to want to know what will happen very soon in the story. It is also what keeps our eyes moving to the next sentence and what keeps us turning the page.
Subtext is what is not said during dialogue. Dialogue with subtext adds spice to a story. Subtext lies under the surface and also adds tension. This is one of my favorite forms of tension.
This creates questions . . . and tension. There are lots of variations and styles of foreshadowing, from a blunt omniscient narrator telling us something bad will happen, to subtle use of images and events which lightly foreshadows later events.
Tension and Setting
In some cases, the setting will naturally create tension–like in an adventure book set in the outdoors. Many books use setting to create the atmosphere. In other cases, what the character or narrator notices in their environment will create an undercurrent of sorts, and that creates tension.
Each genre, as well as every individual book, will use a different mix of these techniques to craft tension.The tension needs to match the story and genre of course, but the techniques of building tension are the same in all stories. Also, each technique should be applied in the best way for that story. For example, I would craft a cliffhanger differently for a “quiet” book than for a thriller.
Although many aspects of tension show up in my initial drafts, tension is one area that I look at when I revise. If the plot feels slack or the character seems boring, it may be a lack of tension, which can be reversed with revision. Sometimes looking at tension helps me sort out problems that I’m facing with either character development or plot; this is because I am looking at the story from a different angle.
Earlier this week, I was thinking more about tension. The thought came to me that tension without hope brings despair. Tension just for the sake of tension won’t typically give a story forward movement. Most books contain some sort of hope when there is tension, because the character needs hope to act and move the story forward.
Tension utilizes so many aspects of writing craft. It is an essential element of story that shows up within the character, throughout the plot, and on each page.
~Sarah Blake Johnson