Just as a story thrives on conflict, it also thrives on the tension created by that conflict.
Tension creates a sense of unknown and leaves the readers wondering what is going to happen next.
It is vital to keeping the story alive in the reader’s mind, and to do so, there must be some form of tension in every scene, preferably every page.
Even if the tension isn’t resolved in the current scene, it can set the stage for future events and keep the reader turning the pages.
There are three types of tension you can add to a story:
One of the best ways to build tension is through the interaction of our characters.
If you look at the problems in our world today, 80-90% of them are caused by people and our interactions with each other.
It is the prime source of conflict and tension in the newspapers, TV, even our movies.
It is in our nature to fight amongst ourselves, for dominance, to prove a point, to show we’re better.
As individuals, it is a given no two people will ever agree on everything.
If we did, we would no longer be individuals but a hive mentality, such as bees or ants, where all have one common purpose.
While that might seem like a wonderful thing, in reality, it’s not.
Conflict and tension amongst ourselves lead to greater creativity, imagination, and individuality.
We debate, fight, and yes, war but without it, we would not have the society we do today.
All our advances, be they technological or military, has come from intense debate amongst allies and the attempt to be better than our enemies.
Without it, we would be no different than any other species on this planet. It is how we work amongst ourselves, both in cooperation and conflict, that sets us apart and makes us unique.
This is what we need to bring to our stories.
That sense of individuality, however minor, that makes each of us different and shows how everyone views and handles things in their own way, that everyone has their own agenda.
There are many ways to create tension between characters.
For example: they might stand in each other’s way of reaching their goals, disagree on a course of action, sabotage each other, or keep secrets from each other.
Every character interaction should have at least one source of tension, however minor.
The key is finding the ones that work best for your story.
Things tend to happen when we least expect them. Sometimes we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For example: a hurricane when you’re on vacation, a rock slide blocking the road, a blizzard trapping you in an airport hundreds of miles from home (had that one happen to me).
Nature can be unpredictable and can be a powerful addition to a scene.
However, there are other ways to use setting to increase our tension.
For example: a picture bringing on a bad memory, a pen used as a weapon, eerie sounds coming from the forest.
There are many ways a setting can create uncertainty and make plans go awry.
Use your setting to force your protagonist into uncomfortable or dangerous situations to get them to make tough decisions and face parts of themselves they might normally avoid.
Every day we’re faced with hard choices.
Sometimes these choices force us to do things we’d rather not or go against our beliefs.
It can be hard to face our fears and flaws, and often we find ourselves avoiding situations that might bring these to light.
For example: I always feel like people are judging me. I present a mask to the world whenever I go out to help me cope in social situations because I’m afraid to let anyone get close and see the real me.
So, when I’m forced into such situations, even as simple as going to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment, I dread it and try to find ways to avoid it, if possible. When I do go, I try to get through it as fast as possible and leave feeling drained.
I’m also afraid of heights, but there have been times I’ve had to face it.
I remember going on my Senior field trip and everybody going on this rollercoaster in a pitch-black setting amongst the solar system (sorry, I don’t remember the name).
I was stupid enough to think being in the dark meant I could handle it because I couldn’t see how high I was.
Boy was I wrong! That had to be the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced.
I was so scared I couldn’t even scream. I just held on for dear life and prayed for it to be over. And I have never set foot on a rollercoaster since.
So, push your characters into situations that require them to face their fears and flaws and make impossible choices.
Strong emotional tension can draw your readers in and make the story seem more realistic, keeping them hooked to the end.
Try to vary your story’s tension between the different types to keep your readers’ interest.
Start small and gradually increase the tension, having each one build upon the last and use it to create that sense of unknown that leaves readers craving for more.
You’ll be glad you did.
What types of tension do you use in your stories?
FOR FURTHER READING
Renea strives to help writers develop the focus and skills they need to finish their first novel, offering writers practical writing advice they can apply one step at a time.
She is the author of Conquering Writing Pressures: Living a Balanced Writing Life in a Busy World where she helps writers find the courage to accept life will never be perfect. And if we want our dreams to succeed, we must fight to make them a reality.
She currently lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband Joe, her three children, and her five lovable furballs.
From a young age, Renea was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, which she read in the ninth grade.
She is an avid reader, with her main interests residing in history, mythology, and fantasy, along with some romance and science fiction in her earlier years.
When Renea’s not writing, she enjoys genealogy, role-playing games, and dreams of traveling the world. In a past life, she plucked chickens and milked cows.