Posted on

How to create tension in creative writing

How To Create Tension In Writing

Can you think of a moment in a novel or story when you lost all awareness of your surroundings? The only thing that mattered was happening on the page, and then at the end, you come up for air and utter “damn.” Creating this tense atmosphere is a skill, and in this guide, we’re going to look at how to create tension in writing.

What Is Tension In Writing?

In reality, we don’t like a life full of tension. In fiction, however, the opposite is true. As readers we love stress and tension; we seek it out. When we read pages laden with tension a hormone is released into our bloodstream which stimulates the heart and increases blood pressure, in turn provoking an adrenal high. This excitable feeling is what readers crave.

But like most things, too much of it and you’ll get bored. That’s why, at this early point in the article, it’s important to set out the difference between suspense and tension. Suspense can span across chapters, an entire book even. Tension can last mere seconds or minutes.

Sol Stein in his book, On Writing, uses a good example to illustrate this. Think of tension as an elastic band. The more it’s stretched the looser and weaker it becomes until eventually, it snaps. Use too much tension and you’ll break the elastic band in your reader’s head.

How To Create Tension In Writing

Various ways exist to create tension in writing, and in this section, we’re going to take a look at a few examples:

  • One way is to include strange, mysterious, or chilling facts. Sol Stein takes an excellent example from The Day of the Jackal by Fredrick Forsyth, which demonstrates how in one sentence tension can be conjured.

“It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.”

How did you feel reading this sentence? Did you want to know more? Did questions pop into your mind? Who is being executed? For what? Why that time of day? All of these questions create tension and encourages us to keep reading.

  • Friction is another way to build tension. Situations which don’t go together, the clash of opposing forces.
  • Dialogue is an effective method of creating tension. Confrontational dialogue can have readers turning pages faster than a man reading a magazine in an oncologist’s waiting room.
  • Using tension earlyon in a book or story can allow the writer to take control of the reader’s emotions. You grip them with your words, and in exciting them they allow you to take them along on your adventure.
  • One thing you can do to spark some tension is to move a specific sentence to another location. The purpose is to stretch out the tension as much as possible. Look at Stein’s example:

“I was heading over to Uncle Urek’s before I got your message. He in trouble again?”

A fog of silence descended. Nobody looked at anybody else. Finally, Feeney said, “She doesn’t know.”

How about moving one line?

“I was heading over to Uncle Urek’s before I got your message.”

A fog of silence descended. Nobody looked at anybody else.

“He in trouble again?”

Finally, Feeney said, “She doesn’t know.”

Notice the difference? Simple and effective.

How To Increase Tension

Once you’ve created tension, you do not want to dispel it immediately. Dangle the resolution in front of the reader’s nose, always just out of reach. Think of an incident, in life or one you’ve read about, where a pressing situation arises, but all of a sudden it’s over, the tension gone.

You hear a noise in the next room, but you know you’re alone in the house. The keys of the piano jingle inside. Your heart freezes, but you toughen your resolve and pull open the door. And the cat runs out. Bit anti-climactic.

How could the tension be prolonged? Could the character get a phone call, one they must answer, or does someone knock on the front door? They want to uncover what’s going on in the room, but not just yet.

Examples Of Plotlines That Create Tension

Thanks to Sol Stein for recommending these:

  • Dangerous work is involved. A soldier on the front line; a space engineer repairing the outside of a ship. When writing this kind of story or scene, exploring the tiny details of the type of work involved increases tension.
  • A deadline is nearing. You’ve got twenty-four hours, or the girl gets it. Deadlines are used in many clever ways. James Barclay used one in Noonshade, where a portal to the realm of dragons is inching open and the heroes must race to close it before hordes of fire-breathing man-eaters invade Balaia.
  • An unfortunate meeting occurs. Someone from a character’s past reappears, perhaps an old enemy or lover. Or running into the wrong person at the wrong time.
  • An opponent trapped in a closed environment. Stein gives a wonderful example here, which I’ll paraphrase: A lion has escaped its enclosure and chased a woman into a cellar storeroom. The ageing zoo ranger is the only one onsite with a rifle. When he arrives at the scene a younger man offers to take the rifle and the old man gives him it. As the pair are about to descend into the cellar the younger man begins shaking, his handling of the weapon reeking of inexperience. The ranger offers to take it back, and the younger man hands it over. At the head of the cellar stairs, the ranger hears the lion below, but can’t see clearly. Holding the rifle with one hand he takes out a torch. He struggles to balance both the rifle and torch, tries to hold the latter in his mouth, but it’s too big. As he puts the torch down the crazed lion bounds up the cellar steps.

In this example, Stein keeps on increasing the tension, stretching it out. First, the old man hands over the rifle, then the younger man hands it back, then the old ranger struggles to see into the cellar, then struggles using both rifle and torch, until at last the lion leaps. Wouldn’t it be so much more boring if he arrived, looked into the cellar and the lion jumped at him?

Creating Tension In Writing Infographic

The great folks over at Now Novel have put together this very handy guide on how to create tension in writing. Hope it helps!

How To Create Tension In Writing – A Summary

Here are a few summary points on what we’ve covered on how to create tension in writing:

  • Always seek to stretch out tension. Remember the elastic band analogy. Stretch it out too much and it’ll break.
  • Add steps or mini detours within scenes to prolong tension. Anything that keeps the end at bay.
  • Use tension early on in a story to grab a hold of the reader’s emotions.
  • Chilling language, dialogue, sentence structure, and conflicting or confrontational situations can all create tension.

More Guide On Creative Writing

Before I leave you, I wanted to point you in the direction of some other writing guides you may appreciate.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for reading this guide on how to create tension in writing. If you found this post helpful, why not stay in touch? As well as staying up to date with more posts like this, you’ll be kept abreast of any news and articles I think you may find helpful, as well as any new resources I release.

Tension! What It Is & How to Develop It In Your Novel

Tension. It can spellbind your readers and leave them breathless, on the edge of their seats and biting their nails in anticipation for what will happen next. And, without it, your story will feel as lifeless and limp as a pricked balloon.

Tension is a required element in every story.

Readers want to feel excited when reading your story. They want to emotionally invest in your story, the characters and the scenes. The most effective way to elicit this response in your reader is through tension.

Find out if your novel has enough tension with this quick checklist. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.

What is Tension Exactly?

Tension is an abstract concept that can be explained in one word: anticipation.

An easy example for understanding tension is flirtation. When two people flirt, especially if there’s sexual chemistry involved, there’s an element of anticipation or a question that begs, where is this leading? Flirtation gives a coy hint to what’s possible.

To that end, tension can tighten or loosen as the story progresses. It’s almost impossible to keep the same amount of tension throughout a story, and why would you want to?

Ideally, you’ll want to start off with some tension but then tighten the tension as you get closer to the climax, or crisis point. Afterwards, you’ll naturally ease the tension because anticipation is no longer at play.

Four* Levels of Tension

To strike the right chord, you’ll need to have multiple levels of tension within your story. Let’s take a look at the major levels of tension at play in any novel:

Tension Within the Protagonist

As you introduce the protagonist into your story, there should be both internal conflict and conflict with some external force (whether that’s an antagonist, a series of unfortunate problems, etc.).

Tension Between the Characters

Show what each of the characters anticipate in every scene. What’s left unsaid between the characters?

Tension at Every Scene

Answer the questions, what is at stake for the characters in this scene? What could go wrong? What could go right?

Create a sense of anticipation with every scene. No only should every scene move the story forward, it should also increase the tension within the protagonist in some way.

Tension Within the Overall Story

There should be an element of anticipation in the overall story also. This will most likely be resolved after the climax. However, other layers of tension, such as that between or within characters, can stretch the entire scope of the story and be resolved towards the end.

*Optional Layer: Tension With the Narrator

This one won’t apply to every story, but for those of you using an unreliable narrator, you can develop a sense of tension and conflict between the narrator and the reader. Can I trust this narrator? Why don’t things add up? Who can I trust in this story?

With the unreliable narrator, the reader becomes part of the story.

It takes a special type of cunning to write as an unreliable narrator who must fool the reader (initially) while leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that are apparent in hindsight.

The Technical Side of Tension

There are certain devices you can use to create a sense of tension through your writing. Let’s explore those below:

Write shorter sentences.

Consider the length of your sentences when writing a tense scene. To help with the pace, and increase the level of tension, you should opt for short, punchy sentences. Avoid commas and sentences that flow and employ the use of staccato.

Use shorter words.

Shorter words can help you move the pace, too. Shorter words are quicker to consume and help keep the reader locked into the moment.

Reveal different tidbits of the story at a time to make the reader wonder.

Don’t show your hand too soon. Build up the tension slowly.

Color code your manuscript.

One of the easiest ways to determine if you’ve packed enough tension is to color code a chapter, or even just a scene, from your novel. Margie Lawson teaches color coding in her EDITS lecture.

The basic idea is that you can choose different colors for dialogue, internal thoughts, exposition, setting, action, and tension. Aim to have a relatively equal balance to all of the elements at play. If you see predominantly one color, it’s time to rework your writing. This can have a profound impact on both pacing and tension.

Understanding Conflict Vs. Tension

You already know what tension is, so let’s define conflict.

Conflict is when two opposing forces are pitted against each other. This can be character against character, character against idea or idea against idea.

Conflict and tension work hand in hand because conflict ideally leads to tension. Notice, I said, “ideally” and not “always” because conflict doesn’t inevitably create tension.

In order for conflict to lead to tension, there needs to be an emotional connection with the character(s). The audience needs to care about what happens or else you can have a lot of dead bodies, zombies, and broken hearts (conflict) but never create emotional investment and anticipation (tension).

Give Your Reader More Information Than You Give the Protagonist

If the reader knows what to expect but the protagonist doesn’t, it can create a great amount of tension within the scene.

Let’s say that the reader knows, through the help of an omniscient narrator, what’s coming next. They know what’s waiting for the character down the dark, mysterious path, and they are left anticipating what’s going to happen when the two collide.

This can make your reader feel things (yes!) for your character. Don’t go down that path, character! (But, do go down that path, writer.)

The Question of Flashbacks

I get it. Flashbacks are sometimes crucial to storytelling. You probably don’t want to start all the way in the past. You may want to start where the action is and then use a flashback to reveal some important truth the readers need to know.

However, the problem with flashbacks is that they often disrupt the forward tension of your story.

Although it’s possible (and pretty much required) to have tension in flashbacks, too many writers fail to infuse the flashback with enough tension to effect the current state of the characters.

You have to stop the forward momentum and take the reader back to another place and time. And you’ll need to start over from scratch with tension within that flashback.

But in general, the tension within a flashback is not as effective because there are no stakes. Whatever happened in the flashback occurred in the past and, although the events may influence the character(s) or give the reader a deeper understanding, it rarely adds to the current tension you’ve built up in your story so far.

The most honorable use of a flashback is to add context to what’s happening at present. That said, you should use this device sparingly, especially when your tension has reached a fever pitch because you will completely destroy the momentum.

The Soundtrack of Tension

One of the most effective ways to convey tension (at least in movies) is through music. A filmmaker can set the tone by choosing the right tone. But obviously, in your novel, you don’t have the luxury of playing a soundtrack to the reader.

But, I still think music is a great way to describe tension.

The tension within your novel should play like a classical piece played on a violin. There should be alternating moments of soft, sharp, loud, quiet, harmonious, discordant and stirring. But there should always be an active string.

Parting Thoughts

Tension is all about balance. Remember to allow your tension to ebb and flow. Not every moment of your novel should be tightly wound. It’s the symphonic play between relaxed and taunt on every layer that make your story “turn the page” gripping.

What’s your favorite example of tension in a novel? Let us know in the comments below!

Find out if your novel has enough tension with this quick checklist. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.