How to create tension in writing: 8 methods

how to create tension in writing - 8 methods - man on tightrope image

Tension maintains the narrative drive in a novel. If you want to know how to create tension in writing, look no further than these 8 methods for raising tension to white-knuckle levels:

1. Keep complicating things

Raising the stakes and complicating the situation for the protagonist is one of the most basic and most important aspects of creating and maintaining a tension in a novel. As the novel progresses, the situation should grow increasingly dire for the protagonist. Escalating tension is one of the four most important factors of writing effective suspense, so your hero’s efforts to fix problems should sometimes fail, and in some cases these efforts can even worsen your character’s problem.

For example, in a mystery novel, the detective may think she has identified who the murderer is but in fact be mistaken. She may tell another character whom she believes is trustworthy about her suspicion in order to enlist that character’s help. Unbeknownst to her, that character might unwittingly relay this information to the actual murderer, leading to a second murder. Now the protagonist has two murders to solve and must also deal with the discovery that her own carelessness worsened her situation.

The trick here is that if the complications are caused by the character’s actions, the actions should seem reasonable. Complications that occur as a result of characters acting unbelievably foolishly are liable to frustrate readers. Personal foolish action might have a comical effect in farce but in serious drama they can stretch credibility if too outlandish.

Here are some other points to keep in mind when you are using complications to build tension:

2. Balance high dramatic tension with calmer scenes

The obstacles that create tension should be of different sizes although the overall stakes should increase. This may seem like an obvious point, but in the thick of writing a novel you may have a nagging sense that your novel lacks a steady rise in tension without being able to put your finger on why. Including tension-building plot events of various sizes will create variety and small climaxes and releases that make the main event that much more impactful. 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.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the tension usually cannot be constant. Although this might seem to be the key to creating suspense and keeping your reader’s interest, a perpetual state of suspense can be 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.

3. Draw tension from unexpected places

When we think about creating tension in storytelling, we generally think in terms of protagonists and antagonists or at least of tension that comes from outside the protagonist. However, in addition to the tension created by the main story, you can create tension using conflict between the protagonist and her and her colleagues and allies as well as internal conflict.

For example, in a romance novel, in addition to the conflicts that keep the protagonist apart from her love interest, she might also be having additional conflicts with her sister and with her best friend. These might form her main support network, and they might disapprove of a course of action she is taking. This lack of support creates more difficulties for the protagonist as well as increased tension and a sense of uncertainty for the reader regarding how the story will pan out. It can also create a sense of unresolved, lesser conflicts that sustain reader interest in a series even after the final climax.

Characters’ problems and motivations can be complicated by adding internal conflict. For example, the same protagonist who is in conflict with her sister and best friend may also be suffering internal conflict because she was badly disappointed in a previous relationship and fears getting involved with someone again. An example of effective use of internal conflict in story plotting is found in Showtime’s political thriller series Homeland. The main character chooses to go abroad on dangerous CIA assignments, partly due to emotional investment in her work but also to escape her fear of being an unfit parent to her child. This creates a sense of there being unresolved internal conflicts in her life that leave viewers staying on for resolution.

4. Use reversals, twists and revelations effectively

how to create tension in writing - star warsThese are all excellent ways to heighten tension in a novel, and some incidents may be two or all three of these things at the same time. For example, the moment that Luke Skywalker learns that Darth Vader is his father in 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.

In a way, this revelation is also a reversal although it is not an immediate one. A famous reversal from classic cinema that is immediate comes near the end of Casablanca when Ilsa learns Rick is not coming with her.

Reversals, revelations and twists can all be used to change the playing field of your novel and disorient your protagonist in one quick moment. The sense of unpredictability this creates adds tension.

5. 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. In learning how to create tension in writing, paying attention to emotion is critical since the reader must care about the imaginary world you create in order to keep reading.

If emotion is critical to tension, then well-developed characters are critical to emotion. Most passionate readers know the feeling of finishing a good book and feeling bereft without the characters who came to seem like friends. Developing believable and engaging characters may seem unrelated to the task of building tension, but it is actually one of the most essential elements for creating this effect.

In addition to developing your characters, there is one other necessity for using character to build tension:

6. 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.

7. 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 back story drags the novel to a halt and makes it all too easy to set a book down.
  • 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 in great detail. Stick to the most important information.
  • Don’t waste time idling. Your story and your tension should always be on the rise. 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?’.

8. Ground your tension in conflicts that make sense for your genre

How to create tension in writing - picture quote on suspenseAll 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 while the main tension in a crime novel is around solving the mystery or catching the 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 for its specific genre.

Once you’ve identified the genre and made certain that you have chosen the right major source of tension, you can also look to other genre elements to create secondary sources of 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 these secondary sources of tension overtake the main idea of your story.

Making your novel taut with tension keeps your reader interested, and tension is critical to successful storytelling in certain genres such as thrillers. By raising the stakes and complicating situations with both large and small obstacles and by creating characters your readers care about, you can ensure that your novel will crackle with tension throughout.

Structuring your story well is vital if you want to create masterful tension. Try the structured Now Novel process to create a novel outline that will make your story’s tensions build and ebb in a gripping way.

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  • Banana Boat Charlie

    Thank you for this post! This is exactly what I needed! You just made my life so much less stressful.

    One technique I use that works really well is to imagine the book as a
    season in a TV show. I look at each chapter as an episode, and remember
    the best shows I’ve ever watched. Namely Fringe.
    So each chapter, or
    episode, must further the overall plot of the season and show (If you’re
    writing a series of books) and present tension for that. But it must
    have tension of its own which is at least partially resolved by the end
    of the chapter/episode.
    It’s REALLY helpful. To me, at least.

    • Thanks Charlie, I’m really glad you found it helpful. That sounds like a great technique – I really like the idea of borrowing ideas from every medium possible, not only other books. Thanks for adding to the useful possibilities!

  • Brianne Toma

    Medium does this. And it gets pretty crazy. Glad I read this. I’m at the point where I see my tension and don’t know how to utilize it. But now I know how to organize it at least. Very good read.

    • Thanks Brianne, glad that you found it helpful! Creating tension can be tricky. I find shortening sentences and lines of dialogue often helps quicken the pace.

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