Building Tension in a Story
Write Better, Right Now is a weekly post helping writers understand deeper writing strategies to take their stories to the next level. For writers looking for free creative writing workshops, check out Workshops for Writers!
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. This week is dedicated to looking at how we can build tension into our stories. While tension is usually seen as the element of writing most used by mystery, thriller, and horror writers, tension comes in many forms and can be used in any genre. There’s narrative tension, dramatic tension, relationship tension, inner tension, outer tension, interpersonal tension, communication tension, sexual tension, physical/violent tension, and the list could go on.
Tension is the sense that something is about to happen, whether that be good or bad. We often think bad or negative when we think about tension. But we don’t have to. We can use tension in our fiction to build joy between friends solidifying or even mending a friendship. Using tension, we can keep our readers in our stories, wondering what happens next.
Let’s dive into it more below!
While there are many different types of tension, each one uses similar techniques to make tension work in a story. The most important element of tension is the reader needs to know what matters to your characters. If the reader has no idea why they should feel tense, then they won’t. Build your story around your characters, their emotions, and the spaces they occupy to see where you can develop tension in your story.
Once you know what aspects of your story you want to build or center your tension around, layer it into the story. Start by focusing on foreshadowing potential outcomes. You can use flashbacks, figurative language, and other techniques to employ and embed foreshadowing into your story. Some writers like using dream sequences, hallucinations, and even Freudian slips to elbow the reader into looking toward the end.
Binding your tension to your characters and their relationships is another surefire way to build tension into your story. Your characters can be mortal enemies, ex-lovers, a rowdy student and a strict teacher, etc. Pit your characters and their lifestyles or outlooks on life against each other to craft consistent interpersonal or relationship tension.
A favorite among many writers to up the tension in their fiction is by using a time limit or constraint. For example, a romantic tension situation between two partners could have an ultimatum with a time limit on it: “I want a decision about our future by midnight on our anniversary.” While the rest of the story unfolds, this ticking clock will work at both the characters and reader, pushing them toward the inevitable end.
We will get into more of macrotension further in the month, but using the big-picture elements of the story like the setting, character dynamics, structure, chapter titles, and more can create heightened and deepened tension throughout your story. Macrotension tasks writers to examine the overarching or macro elements of their story for ways of layering in tension that the reader will be aware of and ways the reader won’t.
Macrotension’s little sibling microtension (we’ll get into this one next week!) is my favorite way of building tension into a story. Instead of relying on fancy storytelling elements like foreshadowing or setting, microtension focuses on using the small bricks of storytelling to create a sense of tension in our stories and readers. Microtension relies on what words we choose and how we construct our sentences and paragraphs.
Another popular way of creating tension in your story is by adding or doubling your complications and problems. Introduce a problem to your characters, have them solve it, but in solving it they make something else worse or discover a bigger problem. The Expanse does this masterfully to create tension you can not turn away from.
Cliffhangers are another popular form of building tension into your story. Where a few writers get confused is how to execute a proper cliffhanger without leaving the scene or moment too soon or too late. The advice I’ve found to work best is to employ a cliffhanger the moment right after the big event vs before the big event.
For example, if your character hears a knock at the door while searching their house for killers or friends waiting to jump out for a surprise party, show the reader who is at the door instead of cutting out of the scene at the sound of the knock. Showing the reader the conclusion creates more direct and concrete questions in their mind more powerful than wondering who is on the other side of the door. This only works if the person/thing on the other side of the door is something interesting enough.
An important element to remember about tension is that it has a rhythm to it. Stacking high tension scene after high tension scene will only result in draining your readers and exhausting your characters. There should be some breathing room for both your readers and characters to allow for the tension to have an impact and pull them through the story without draining them before your big story moments. Rhythm also plays into your pacing or the rhythm of how your story is told.
Take a look at a recent draft or current WIP and examine how you are building tension in your story. Don’t worry about writing in your tension, but identify the elements of tension your story has going for it. Highlight passages, leave notes, and wrestle with your draft.
If your story doesn’t have tension in it for creative reasons, use this week to explore how other writers are using tension by reading 5 short stories from 5 different magazines or online publications. Note when tension is working and how it works. Are you able to find stories that aren’t high tension but still utilize tension in other ways to capture the reader?
- 10 Facts to Help You See How to Use Tension in Your Story
- How to Create Tension in Your Stories
- Building Tension
- Increase Tension in Your Novel
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 using microtension in your writing.