Wednesday, May 4

Whoa, That’s Tense. Raising the Tension in Your Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

My husband and I recently watched the movie Sanctum, and I really admired the way the director kept the tension high all the way through the movie. Part of the reason why it got to me so well, is because it takes place in a cave, and many of the scenes are underwater. Even though I’ve never been cave diving (the hubby has), I have dived wrecks with confined spaces, so the setting was familiar to us. We both know how dangerous cave diving is, and how many things can go wrong and kill you. There were quite a few things from this movie that would translate well into raising the tension in a story.

A Setting Ripe With Hazards 

Cave diving is dangerous. It’s secluded, there’s no easy way out, and if something goes wrong you’re on your own. What better spot to put your protagonist in than a similar situation? Look at your scenes, especially the ones that start and end chapters. What kind of environment is your protag in? Are they in a place where if something goes wrong they can easily escape or deal with it? This works for emotional settings too, like if they have to deal with something and won’t face it mentally. “Going forward” is a general term, and can mean a literal progression or an emotional one. You might consider:
  • Cutting off their escape routes: If the only possible way to move forward is to go through more danger, you leave your protag little choice but to risk it.
  • Narrowing their options: If cutting off their escape routes isn’t feasible, try making going one way riskier than the other. They way they want to go won’t work, so they have to go the way they don’t want to.
  • Add potential threats: What things in the setting could go wrong? Not that they will or need to, but what is possible? Just because you don’t plan on something bad happening doesn’t mean the reader can’t worry that it will. 
People Making Dumb Mistakes

When you ignore the cave diving expert who tells you how to survive the terrible situation you’re in, don’t be surprised when you die. In an unforgiving environment, one mistake can kill you. Try being less forgiving of your protag and let them get themselves into trouble. Think about:
  • What don’t they know: Nobody knows everything about a situation, so what if your protag doesn’t have all the skills or information needed to get out of trouble? What mistakes might they make that will get them closer to a catastrophe? A physical mistake that affects something? An emotional mistake where they act without thinking or in a way contrary to what’s smart? A mental mistake where they misread a situation or vital clue?
  • What might you take away: Taking away one piece of information might make the scene tenser. The noise in the dark is much scarier than discovering it’s just the cat. Is there anything you can change so that the reader fears what’s out there/in there/is going to happen? A little mystery can be a powerful thing.
  • What don’t they want to admit: People keeping secrets or not fessing up can cause all kinds of trouble, and if the reader knows or suspects someone is holding back about something critical, there’s a lot of anticipation about how that will unfold. And again, it’s not something that has to happen, it’s the potential for disaster that makes this tense.
Really Awful Choices 

When something goes wrong in a cave deep underwater, you might have to choose between letting one person die or many people dying. Some people can’t be saved no matter how good a person you are or what you try to do. Making the choices your protag has to face – or choices she might have to face – horrible can make the reader agonize right along with her. Things like:
  • Choice between people: Not every situation is going to be life or death, but there are plenty of opportunities to choose one person over the other. Make that choice have consequences that add to the problems (potential or real) piling up. Someone becoming more and more upset over a choice could turn into a nasty surprise.
  • Choice between beliefs: Inner conflict is great to play with, so make the most of it. Is there a line your protag refuses to cross? Something they swore they’d never do? How close can you push them to that line or that action?
  • Choices that all suck: Being in a situation where there is no right answer, and every choice sucks and ends badly for someone, is tense. If the protag is willing to do X, then what might happen later when things get really bad? Maybe they make a hard choice here to avoid crossing a line or doing what they swore they’d never do.
While you don’t want to throw trouble at your protag willy nilly, putting them in an environment rife with potential trouble makes everything they do matter more. One mistake, one slip up and disaster could come crashing down on their heads.

Tension is all about what could happen, not what is happening. It’s the anticipation that gets us.


  1. "Tension is all about what could happen, not what is happening. It’s the anticipation that gets us."

    Great quote! My best friend is a huge horror fan, and my parents also enjoy horror movies. It's normal to hear them griping about some horror movie that showed the "scary monster" thing, which completely destroyed the apprehension.

  2. I think this is another post I'll have to bookmark for myself. And it gives me a whole new way to examine scenes I'm reading or watching!

  3. I'm really glad I found you blog. Posts like this are both informative and orginal. Thank you very much.

  4. Ah, yes -- I recall a Deb Dixon workshop where she said to give your character choices. But the choice has to be between 'it sucks' and 'it's suckier'.

    Terry's Place

  5. This is a great post! I really enjoyed the way you looked at the setting for tension. So often we think about the conflict between characters for tension--which is good of course--but it's also important to look for tension in other places.

  6. I also love the bit about what could happen! I've been trying outlining, and this is what I'm combating as I go back and revise: I know what's going to happen, so my characters don't always act like all the horrible things that could happen might happen.

  7. Carradee: Thanks! It's the music that gets me in horror movies. Once the bad things happens I'm fine. I've been known to turn the sound off so it doesn't wig me out :)

    Paul: Win/win!

    Michael: Most welcome, and good to have you with us.

    Terry: I totally agree with that :) Impossible choices are one of my favorite things to do to my protag.

    Elizabeth: Tension can come from anywhere, and setting often just sits there. Why not make it work double duty like the rest of the writing?

    Megan: I've run into that while writing scenes myself. I realize that the antags aren't working very hard because the goal is for the protag to get away. And it's like they know that. What worked for me, is to also plot out what the bad guys/opposition is doing to stop your protag and treat it like they really *are* trying to stop them. You don't have to write it, but just thinking about it puts it in a different mindset and lets you figure out tougher more unpredictable problems.

  8. Yet another fantastic post. This also makes me really want to go watch Sanctum.

  9. Shannon: Thanks! It was a cool movie, if scary at times. I really liked how they underplayed it. Made it feel more real and dangerous.

  10. Enjoyed the post - great stuff

  11. Amazing, amazing, amazing post. Did I mention this post is amazing? Thanks for making the various options so clear. I feel like, "Duh! Why didn't I think of that?" But I didn't. It was all you. So thanks for helping me to make my WIP that much stronger!

  12. AJ: Thanks!

    DB: LOL happy to help. So glad it resonated so well with you :)