Last week, I talked about giving characters agency, but that’s not all editors and agents request. Another thing they ask for is ‘tension’. If the reader doesn’t have a reason to care what happens next, you’ve lost your tension.
Wait. Before we get any further, I need to clarify:
Why ‘Conflict’ Doesn’t Always Mean ‘Tension’
You hear a lot about how stories need to start off with ‘conflict’, but that’s not quite true. What your story needs is tension.
A fight or chase scene can provide conflict, but it’s really just an unsubtle way of giving your readers tension they can understand. And you have to be sure it’s actively forwarding the plot!
If you’ve ever seen Matrix 2, think about the opening fight scene–that went on and on and on.
I’m an easy audience– I don’t typically critique while watching, I want to buy into the world and the story, and I’m very invested in even the cheesiest of movies. Plus? I have a well-honed startle reflex.
Before the 10-minute mark, I couldn’t sit on the edge of my seat any longer. I sat back, took a sip of my soda, and waiting for the fighting to finish so we could start the plot.
So, with that caveat, let’s talk about the:
Types of Tension
- Curiosity (but not true confusion or you’ve lost your reader)
- “Disquiet-itude”* – where something is a little off
- Unanswered questions
- Romantic questions! Will they or won’t they?
- Mystery questions! Who was the real killer?
- The list goes on and on…
Ways To Add Tension
Most of these should be familiar, but I’d be remiss if I left them out.
- Get into the scene as late as possible, and get out as soon as the scene’s main character has made a decision about the next action.
- In Game of Thrones, Clash of Kings, there’s a scene that showed Daenerys after the council decided against her, raging against them. And the scene ends when Daenerys decides what to do next — before letting the reader/viewer in on the plan.
- Fight scenes aren’t tense by themselves – the stakes they’re fighting for are what adds the tension.
- Hinting is better than showing – think about horror movies.
- The Main Character Wants something
- The Main Character is invested in something
- Emotionally, physically, financially -> it doesn’t matter what combination of these three, but you know it’s the character’s weak point
- The Scenery – use word choice to set up the tension
- Have your metaphors say more than just the comparison
- Look at your verb choice. Is there something more precise that sets the mood?
- The five senses
- Building on the scenery, have the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches enhance the tension and mood
- Is everyone else tense, except for one character? What do the rest of the characters know that your one character doesn’t know?
- Is your character tense when everyone else is relaxed? What does your character know that the rest don’t know?
- Have something be obvious to the reader, that the main character doesn’t react to as expected.
- Proximity – both time and distance affect tension
- Pacing – Shorter chapters. Shorter sentences. More action.
Ways To Lower Tension
Well, other than playing with the things above, (in a reverse way), there are things that writers do that lower tension, either intentionally or not.
- Writers often start with setting the scene chapters before the true story starts
- Writers fulfill the reader’s expectations, with no twists
- Humor – there’s a reason gallows humor exists. If you guessed “breaking the tension” in real life, you’d be right.
Remember, you want to keep the tension in your story to compel the reader onwards, but as with any genre, sustaining high tension is exhausting. You need to give the readers (and characters) time to process the plot.
By playing with the levels and types of tension in your story, you can make a story that your reader just can’t walk away from.
These notes come from the Balticon 52 panel, “Sustaining Tension in Your Writing”, featuring writers/panelists David Walton, Gail Martin, Scott Andrews, and moderated by Mark VanName.
* Scott Andrews’s word