Sunday, August 14, 2011

how to add tension to our work (4 points)

Tension: an often unpleasant thing in our daily lives but a necessary ingredient in our writing (funny how that works, right?)

Tension is the one thing that I need more of in my work. I get that suggestion from the wonderful Laura and from anyone else who has read fragments of my recently completed novel.

I've been hunting the Internet for help on tension and also took some notes from a recent (and extremely helpful) phone conversation. So, here it goes:

1. In a nutshell, a storyteller creates a character who can't refuse to act because of the cost of inaction, but there's also a price to pay for acting.

2. Obstacles create tension. Ask: What does my main character want? What is preventing he or she from getting it?

3. Another way to generate tension is to begin a story with a character wrestling with a dilemma (which can be mainly internal or external). If a plot event forces that character to act to resolve their dilemma, the story begins with a question -- what will the character do -- and moves toward an answer to that question.

If that step resolves the original dilemma, but creates a new, larger problem that requires another step forward, the story continues to advance.

4. Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, is a great example of narrative tension. To act on his love for Juliet is to turn against his clan and family; to not act on his feelings for Juliet is to violate his sense of what's important to him. But any action he takes increases his pain.


How do you add tension to your work?


  1. These are really great! I like obstacles to create tension for my characters. In my writing it's vital but in real life I don't like obstacles very much, LoL! :)

  2. These are some great points here. Something I need to remember is how subtle tension can be. A vague sense of unease, a missing piece of information, two people in opposition, whether it's over something small or something with global reach.

  3. Great points, Saumya. I try to add both internal and external conflict to create tension.

  4. My characters seem to like to fall into emotional traps and make wrong choices and say things they shouldn't - those are my favorite tension-raisers. I just read your interview (thanks to a link Laura put up!) and I loved to hear more about your book!!!! Oh I really want to read it. Curious about this quarter-life crisis you've mentioned (and it used to be the name of your blog last year didn't it?)

  5. I did even better with tension in my second book. I think it's one of those things that comes from practice.

  6. Love that Romeo example! One of the first things I do when planning a book is decide what the character wants and what the consequences will be, and I try to keep that tension throughout the novel.

  7. One way I created tension in my book was to just take my time slow-building it from chapter to chapter...never rushing it at all. I kinda borrowed the technique from George R.R. Martin and I'm happy with the result but dunno if readers are yet. Some day I will find out.

  8. Donald Maass has some great suggestions in his books. Unfortunately I don't have his books near me to tell you them. He breaks tension into micro and macro.