The Difference Between Tension and Anticipation
Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post helping writers understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level.
Write Better, Right Now’s topics for July:
- The Difference Between Tension and Anticipation (7/5)
- Building Tension in a Story (7/12)
- Using Microtension in Your Writing (7/19)
- Using Macrotension in Your Stories (7/26)
This month we’ll be going over tension and how to use it in our stories. When talking about tension, anticipation comes up. Many writers don’t know the difference, but it’s an important distinction to make like all writing techniques and skills.
Tension in fiction is the feeling and technique created in the reader or character around something about to happen. There are various forms of tension and ways to work it into a story. We’ll get into more of how tension works its way into a story. With tension, writers create mystery, suspense, titillation, and even anticipation.
Anticipation in fiction is the feeling created in the reader or character when they are waiting for something to happen. I’m sure you can see the confusion and why the two are often used interchangeably. But while tension is a technique you can employ in your stories, anticipation is not a technique and when used like one creates stilted tension.
Anticipation comes from the tension you create in your story.
Let’s dive into it more below!
Tension on the page can come across in many ways. We’ll get into some more throughout the month, but tension can be:
And the more you dig into tension, the more ways you can see how to use it on the page.
For microtension, writers use that on the line-by-line and word-by-word level. Microtension shows up in how writers build their sentences and the words they select. A writer describing a tie as a noose in a long run-on sentence that ends with a cut-off or m-dash is using microtension.
Macrotension covers the bigger elements of storytelling like the structure of the story. You can use macrotension to create a nonlinear story that keeps the reader guessing at what will happen next. In most werewolf or monster transformation stories, one of the ways macrotension comes up is through when the transformation is going to occur.
Narrative tension can get folded in with macrotension, but I think it deserves its own mention. Narrative tension is the tension stringing your story together. It is the continued up of problems and consequences, building to an explosive end. The Expanse is a great example of tight narrative tension where the problems and issues are continually being upped.
Dialogue tension is the tension that shows up when characters are speaking to one another or even themselves. Subtext is the biggest technique used when creating dialogue tension. A lot of times I see dialogue tension between two potential lovers. While they may be talking about painting, what they are actually saying is how they want to touch each other.
Anticipation in fiction and stories can be seen as the successful by-product of tension. If your narrative tension around a bomb on a plane is well crafted, your readers and characters will be filled with anticipation of what will happen next. For your characters, they will also start coming up with ways to hinder, avoid, or help the situation, creating more tension and anticipation.
Some writers think confusion/obfuscation and anticipation are the same. For example, if the reader has no idea what is happening in the story, then they will feel anticipation. This type of thinking often misses the mark because if the reader doesn’t know what’s happening then how are they supposed to feel anything when it does happen?
Anticipation only happens when the reader knows what’s going on and understands the, for lack of a better word, stakes. But not just stakes, consequences, hopes, and desires. What are your characters expecting and chasing after? That’s where you can strike at the heart of anticipation in your reader and characters.
While they aren’t the same, writers can use tension and anticipation together to create wonderful effects for the reader. For example, you can have a scene where two characters are arguing over how to go about their big secret heist. As they’re arguing, you’re using dialogue tension to create anticipation in the reader for what these characters are going to say next. While the argument started out about the best tool for the job maybe it deteriorated into deep-seated issues in the partnership and is now bringing up secrets and long-forgotten histories.
Or you can create anticipation around a big event taking place at some point in the plot. Stranger Things is a great example of a show with great amounts of both tension and anticipation. Each season, the creators build anticipation around each of the separate storylines/parties to meet. What each of the parties/storylines does causes tension on various levels.
Head over to Nightmare Magazine and read Gordon B. White’s Gordon B. White is Creating Haunted Weird Horror. Using this guide and the resources linked below, examine the story for how the writer builds tension and anticipation into the writing. What techniques do you pick up on? What other emotions do you feel?
It’s okay if you don’t know everything about tension and anticipation right now. This exercise is to get you paying attention to this aspect of stories and writing.
Take this exercise further by sharing what you learned from the story and your thoughts in the comments.
- How to Keep Readers Reading with Story Tension
- Build Toward the Story’s End
- Building Emotional Anticipation in Fiction and Storytelling
- Suspense in Books: 6 Ways to Grow Anticipation
- What is Tension?
To check out past topics covered in the Write Better, Right Now series, check here!
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Catch you next week for our Write Better, Right Now post on building tension within your story.