Monday, May 8

Skill Builder: What is Tension? (And How to Make it Work for You)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Tension is one of those writing terms that’s used all the time, but not every writer knows exactly what it means or how to apply it to their writing. They know they need it, they know it’s important (especially when paired with conflict), but they struggle to understand it. Tension is like show, don’t tell in that regard.

While creating tension in a novel can be challenging, this is all it really is: the anticipation of what will happen next.

Deceptively simple, right? Create situations where readers want to know what happens next—from the next few seconds (Agent Donald Maass calls this micro-tension), to the next few chapters, to the end of the novel. We keep reading because of tension. We want to know what happens and the anticipation of that holds us in the story.

Just like we did with conflict, let's look at the basic dictionary definition of tension and see how it applies to writing:

1. The act of stretching or straining.


To me, “stretching or straining” says “goal.” It’s the desire to obtain or achieve something, and when characters are trying to achieves goals, readers usually want to see if they get them. One way to create and maintain tension in a novel is to give your protagonist goals to pursue, so readers can wonder:
  • Will Frodo make it to Mt. Doom?
  • Will Romeo run away with Juliet?
  • Will Miss Marple catch the murderer?
Of course, the answer to these types of questions is usually “yes,” which is why just having a goal doesn’t always create tension. It’s the anticipation of how this goal will be obtained that creates the tension. How will the protagonist strain (the conflict) or stretch (the internal character arc)?

(Here’s more on creating questions to raise tension)

2. The state of being stretched or strained.


Tension is also created by external pressures on the protagonist. Usually it’s the antagonist, but anyone or anything forcing the protagonist to strain (struggle) can work.
  • It’s the detective trying to piece together the clues in time to save the victim.
  • It’s the protagonist struggling to find a date to her sister’s wedding.
  • It’s the scientist racing to solve the math problem and bring the astronauts home safely.
Other people affect the lives of the protagonist, and those pressures, needs, and evil machinations can make readers wonder what will happen next and how those interferences will affect the story.

3. Mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense, anxiety, or excitement.


Anticipation can be both good and bad—which is why it’s a lot of fun when we’re eagerly waiting for a new movie to come out, and not so fun when we’re sitting in the dentist’s waiting room. How a character feels about what’s coming next can create tension. If they worry, odds are the reader will too.
  • It’s the fear that the best friend won’t keep her promise and not tell the husband.
  • It’s wondering how long the detective can avoid facing the realization he did get his partner killed.
  • It’s waiting to see if the class clown actually stays serious to the end of the prom or embarrasses himself yet again.
This type of tension also works well with internal conflicts, because “what happens next” has consequences for the protagonist. Decisions that could hurt feelings, ruin relationships, or even get people killed.

4. A strained relationship between individuals, groups, nations, etc.


If you’ve ever walked in on two people in the middle of a fight, you’ve felt this type of tension. Two (or more) sides unhappy with each other and everyone knows it. Maybe nobody is talking about it, or they’re trying to make the best of it, but you can tell whatever it causing the tension is going to erupt into something big at some point.
  • It’s knowing your parents are fighting and trying to pretend they’re not.
  • It’s smiling when the boss tells you to work over the weekend and you can’t afford to say you can’t.
  • It’s holding it together when you saw the back-stabbing text your friend wrote about you.
People who don’t get along sometimes have to try, and a lot of tension can come from the struggle not to act on strong emotions.

(Here’s more on what the characters aren't saying)

5. Electricity. Electromotive force; potential.


While electrical tension doesn’t really apply to writing, one aspect of this does—potential. Tension is chock full of potential. It’s wondering:
  • Why did he say that?
  • Is she hiding something?
  • What’s really in the box?
The greater the sense that what we see isn’t the whole picture, the greater the tension can be.

(Here’s more on how setting can influence tension) 

6. Machinery. A device for stretching or pulling something.


You could say “plot engines” are a type of machinery, and the plot (and conflict) is what we use to pull our protagonists in multiple directions. It’s how the problems will be solved and what it will cost that keep tensions high.
  • It’s the struggle to survive in a battle area with everyone and everything trying to kill you.
  • It’s dealing with all the crap your ex is throwing at you while trying to keep your job.
  • It’s the self-doubt whispering in your ear that you’re not good enough for what you want.
Resolving the plot will resolve the tensions pulling the protagonist apart.

7. A device to hold the proper tension on the material being woven in a loom.


This feels like “stakes” to me. What’s at stake for the protagonist is what’s keeping her from just walking away from the plot. The tension comes from trying to solve the problems without suffering the potential consequences.
  • It’s realizing your best friend is in an abusive relation and not turning the other way.
  • It’s knowing you put other lives at risk if you play it safe to protect your own.
  • It’s smiling through the pain to get what you’ve always wanted.
If the protagonist can simply walk away and nothing happens to her, there will be no tension. Tension needs a framework (the plot) in which to work to its magic.

(Here’s more on creating stakes in your novel)

As some of these examples show, tension doesn’t have to center on huge life or death situations to work. It’s often the little things that keep readers engaged, such as an offhand comment that might carry greater meaning, or an odd behavior that seems out of character.

There are many layers of tension and almost limitless ways to create it. Next time you’re trying to raise tensions in your novel, think about what might happen and how you can take advantage of those expectations. Explore how you can make readers anticipate and dread how a scene will play out or what information might be revealed. Make them wonder and worry and you’ll keep the tensions in your novel high.

Do you have any questions or comments about tension?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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8 comments:

  1. Fab'lous! Love your Building Skills posts! The core skills are always talked about, but not often clearly explained -- especially for first-book writers, who may have a light education in the writing arts.

    The information you offer, if people take time to read it, think about it, and apply it to their writing, can make an immediate difference in the quality of their writing.

    Thanks, Janice, for sharing the 'good' stuff with us!

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  2. I like the idea of tension as a state in which the hero is stretched thin. I'll remember that.

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    1. Sometimes just changing how you think about something makes it easier to remember and use. Happens to me all the time.

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  3. Since your skill builders books are announced as a series, I wonder if tension, conflicts, stakes will be the subject of the next book? That'd be awesome.

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    1. Why yes (grin), the next book does happen to be on conflict. I touch on tension and stakes as they relate to conflict as well. It will be out this summer. Probably July-ish. I don't have a firm date yet but I'll let everyone know.

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