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Friday, February 1

Three Ways to Add Tension During Revisions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Tension is vital to all stories, but let’s face it—we don’t always have it in every scene. I’ve written plenty of scenes that moved the plot along, did what I wanted them to do, but were weak on tension, especially in a first draft. I’d guess a lot of first draft scenes lack tension because the focus in often on the story, the setting, or the characters (or any combination of those).

Since authors usually know what is going to happen in a scene and why, it's easy to write all the tension out of a scene. That critical sense of uncertainty is missing. We might not write something because we know it won't affect the outcome of the scene. But that potential outcome can raise the tensions and make the reader wonder what might happen.

Luckily, tension is something you can add during the second draft.

1. Tension between characters

Look at the characters in your scene. If everyone is on the same page and working as one, you could be missing out on potential areas for tension.

Can anyone be actively trying to prevent your protagonist from getting or doing what he wants? Look for people with reasons not to help your protagonist. A clerk who isn’t being helpful. A guard they have to sneak past. A minion of the antagonist with a full-on plan to stop them. Any type of conflict, large or small, that could make the outcome uncertain.

Can anyone disagree with your protagonist? Even if two people want the same thing, they might have different ideas on how to get it. Look for people who might have other ideas about what the protagonist is doing. Maybe they flat out think she’s wrong, or maybe they agree but think she’s going about it the wrong way. Maybe these opposite opinions can make the reader wonder if the protagonist's view is right or not, adding more uncertainty.

Can anyone have an agenda of her own that interferes with your protagonist’s plan? If two guys are after the same girl, one might try to sabotage the other. Or maybe a secondary character thinks she’s protecting the hero by making sure he fails. Even good intentions can create trouble if the person hearing the advice doesn't like it.

Can anyone be keeping things from your protagonist? Secrets are great ways to add uncertainty and keep readers guessing, especially if they suspect that secret could affect the protagonist or his plan. Even something minor that does little more than embarrass a character if he reveals it could keep things interesting.

(More on using secrets to raise tension here)

2. Tensions with the setting

Life doesn’t always play along. It rains when we want to go on a picnic, the restaurant that was supposed to be romantic has a busload of rowdy school kids on a field trip, or the power goes out when we really need that computer. Murphy’s Law happens, and which environment you put your characters into could add some conflict and raise the tension in that scene.

Can weather be a factor? Someone who's cold and miserable might say things they ordinarily wouldn't. A trip that might be easy in clear weather could be dangerous in bad weather.

Will changing location make the goals harder? Sneaking through a park you grew up next to feels different than sneaking through an area you've never seen before. A new location can add a layer of uncertainty and make your protagonist second guess herself.

Is there a setting or location that causes your characters stress or discomfort? If you protagonist is terrified of heights, forcing them into the air will affect how they'll act.

(More on adding tension through the setting here)

3. Tensions with the self

Sometimes the problem isn't about external forces. A personal struggle can be even more powerful because it's so emotional. Wondering what a character might do in a rough situation is a surefire way to keep tensions high.

Can your protagonist face a moral dilemma? They can get what the need, but they don't really approve of what they'll have to do. They must make a personal sacrifice, and maybe they aren't prepared or ready to do so. Or the cost of that action has far-reaching consequences. Do the ends really justify the means?

Can the right choice require going against their personal beliefs? The "right" answer or course of action is clearly, absolutely in conflict with everything the protagonist knows is right and true. Doing a bad thing for a good cause.

Can the protagonist face something that forces him to address an issue he's been avoiding? A great tension builder for that character who needs to learn a lesson and grow. Characters don't always want to face their demons, but they have no choice if you shove them right up in their faces. And the fallout can be devastating.

Can she face an impossible choice? Impossible choices have no clear answer, which means the reader won't see it coming. Maybe the only way to save the child is to let the mother die. Or something horrible will happen no matter what the protagonist does. If you get your reader thinking, "I have no idea how this is going to turn out," you'll keep them hooked.

Small changes can affect big results, so try starting small and building outward. Look for ways to build tensions on a smaller scale, with simple changes to dialog or how someone reacts to something. You can raise the tension without having to change how a scene unfolds.

(More ways to add tension to a scene here)

What are your favorite ways to add tension to a scene?


  1. Great points, Janice! It's never too late to turn up the tension, even during revision and edits.

  2. Love your ideas. There are definitely scenes in my WIP that are blah. Now I know how to ramp it up. Another idea is to give your Protagonist a time crunch, so they're forced to make a rash decision. Thanks for the ideas.

  3. Veronica, that's when it works best for me. Until I've done that first draft, I don't really know how things will turn out. Easier to see the arcs on a second pass.

    Rebecca, great tip! Love those ticking clocks :)

  4. I struggle with this, too, and rely on revising to add tension. I like to look at a scene and ask myself: what's the worst thing that could happen to this guy right now? And then make it happen. It sure does change the dynamics of the scene.

  5. Ron, another great tip (and one of my favorites). Always fun when disaster strikes a character.

  6. Loved this post. Last stages of first draft, and I'll use your suggestions as I go through the revision stage. Thanks!

  7. Kathrese, thanks! You might try looking at the little micro-tensions, too. Slightly evasive dialog, body language that doesn't match the dialog, stuff like that.

  8. Very helpful post as I'm in the process of revising and definitely have some scenes that need a boost in tension. I'll be referring back to this for ideas. Thanks!

  9. Great tips. I think weather isn't utilized enough sometimes.

  10. Jennifer, most welcome! Good luck on those revisions :)

    Shenna-kay, I love weather. I want to do a book set in extreme weather, I just haven't come up with a good story yet :) One day! LOL

  11. Hi Janice,
    This point jumped out at me, "Even if two people want the same thing, they might have different ideas on how to get it."
    I hadn't thought of that.
    Now I must go and save this post.

  12. Thanks for this great post. I am going to paste it into a document for later. Sometimes I know there is something missing, but I am not sure how to add it in. This list gives me tons of ideas to complicate my MC's life.

  13. Tracy, those are some of my favorite conflicts, because there's rarely a clear "right" way. Even more fun when it's the bad guy and readers can see his point.

    Rubianna, I have a file like that myself :) Hope it helps you on future tough scenes.

    Melissa, thanks!

  14. I don't give nearly enough thought to setting as a tension-inducer. Thanks!

  15. Julie, you're welcome! It's like sound effects in a movie. It can add another layer of detail and cause unforeseen problems.

  16. Janice, As always when I need advice your blog has the answers I need. I was looking for info on tension levels and here are some excellent suggestions.
    One question and a request: Is there such a thing as having too much tension? and how about a post on using micro-tensions. Thanks Delyn

  17. Lynn, go archives! According to agent Donald Maass--no, you can never have too much tension. That doesn't mean characters should be "tense" all the time, but that all-encompassing sense of conflict and things to learn or about to happen. You want readers to feel that if they skim, they'll miss something :) Great topic idea, thanks!

  18. So... keep the readers constantly on the edge of their seats, not the characters. Check.
    Topic idea - Your welcome. Glad I could help in return. :-)

  19. Exactly. Perfectly summed up :)

  20. I was sitting here with my shrunken manuscript (Darcy Pattison technique) thinking about what else I can look for in my ms. Your questions about tension were perfect. Thanks,.