Advice, Writing

Just the Right Amount – Tension in Stories

This is likely to be a short post, mainly because I need to get to bed somewhat early tonight so I can get up early in the morning to get some last minute editing and writing done, but an important one. I want to talk about creating tension in your story.

Tension is that strange bedfellow of conflict (a concept I’ve already discussed at length). Unlike conflict, though, tension can exist on every single page. With conflict, you need to be able to take a breather. Tension, however, drives your story and keeps your readers engaged. It doesn’t have to be in bright red, blaring letters, but tension lives and breathes in every word and scene in a good story. Whether it’s your character’s fears of not solving a mystery, or the pause before a battle where your characters are wondering if they’ll make it to the next day, or the long, drawn out moment when Dr. Frank N Furter lets us know he can see us shiver in antici…pation, tension is integral to keeping your audience engaged.

I’ll talk about some tried and true methods for creating tension in a story, as well as my personal thoughts on tension.

Tension, as I mentioned in the intro to this post, is very similar to conflict. And conflict between characters is a great way to generate tension. In a love story, if the hero and heroine are fighting, it will create a sense of anxiety in the reader. In When Harry Met Sally, the entire final thirty minutes of the film focuses on this tension, while Sally tries to figure out what it means that she and Harry have slept together, especially in the wake of broken hearts and mussed sheets that Harry’s left behind him since his divorce. That final moment in the movie – where Harry finally confesses to Sally that he’s in love with her and will be until he dies – is made so much more powerful because of the tension and conflict leading up to it. So many rom-coms are built on the will-they-won’t-they model, that this type of conflict and tension is a mainstay of the genre. And it’s that way because it works. Alternatively, so many great detective stories work well because the detective and the criminal are in conflict with each other. The question of whether or not the good guy will catch the bad keeps many readers on the edge of their seats. Movies like 7even and Silence of the Lambs are all about the detective catching the bad guy before he can kill again, good versus evil, and both leave you agonizing at the end that maybe, just maybe, the good guy won’t win out. Arguably, Brad Pitt’s character in 7even doesn’t, but even that adds tension to the story.

Another way to add tension is to make a promise to your readers. Chekhov’s gun is a great way to this. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Chekhov’s gun is a principle that all memorable elements of a story must be important, and anything that isn’t should be removed. So if you mention that your character always locks her door before she leaves for work in the morning, you need to make sure that when she gets home after the killer has escaped that the door isn’t locked. You want to give your readers something that says “I promise you that this is going to matter” and then you have to pay up. If you hint that something is going to happen, and then don’t pay up by the end of your story, you are letting your readers down and wasting their energy. Also, by not resolving the potential conflict, you’re only creating tension between you and your audience. This is especially important in mystery and suspense stories, where clues scattered throughout the story eventually allow the reader to figure out the mystery right before the protagonist does.

If you’re struggling with your story reading flat or boring, an easy way to add tension is to raise the stakes. If your protagonist starts out worried that he’s going to lose his job, make him nearly lose his family by the end of the story. It builds upon the conflict inherent in the story, helps with rising action, and keeps things moving forward. Hamlet does this brilliantly. First, Hamlet is worried about acting rashly. Then he’s worried about hurting Ophelia. When he hurts Ophelia (and she kills herself), he stops worrying. When that transition occurs, when Hamlet has nothing left to lose, that’s when the story gets tense. Always raise the stakes. Take things your characters love and put them at risk. It motivates your characters, and it keeps your readers engaged.

Apologies for the rainbow pyramid. It’s definitely not fitting in with the aesthetic I have established here, but it’s important information that I’m willing to sacrifice my hipster sensibilities for.

A great piece of advice that I received – and I unfortunately don’t remember where, when, why, or by whom – was to always think about the primitive motivations of your characters in order to create compelling stories. If you look at Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, you can immediately find compelling motivations for your characters. A lot of great stories can be built upon this pyramid. Jack London’s stories basically lived in the physiological and safety tiers, focusing on man’s struggle against his environment in order to survive. Romances tend to live in the love/belonging tier, where people are trying to figure out their relationships and how they fit into them (10 Things I Hate About YouWhen Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle to name just a few). The Devil Wears Prada is all about esteem, and I think most stories have at least a little of self-actualization sprinkled in. By focusing on these needs, you create conflicts and desires that your readers instinctively understand, and it makes it that much easier to draw them in. And because the audience fears losing these things in their own life, it’s easy to fear your character’s losing them, too.

My final piece of advice when it comes to adding tension to your story is to fall back on the advice of Jim Butcher. In an awesome article he wrote about scenes (along with the follow up on sequels), Butcher talks about the idea of “yes, but…” and “no, and…”. It’s a pretty straightforward concept. Stories get boring if you always resolve your conflict. They also get frustrating if you never resolve it. So the way to spice things up is to resolve the conflict or tension, but with a twist, or don’t resolve it and add onto it. I love this technique because it’s easy to follow, and it creates some genuinely interesting and entertaining moments. It’s also really useful to try out when you get stuck on a scene or plot point. I’ve used it multiple times in my own writing since reading about it, and I’ve looked for it in other stories. Looking at one of my favorite stories that’s come out recently, West World, you can see this idea in use multiple times. Will Maeve escape the park? No, and… Will we ever learn who Wyatt is? Yes, but… It’s super effective in these instances, and it builds tension immediately because it goes against your reader’s expectations. Which is always a good thing.

To quickly summarize ways to create tension:

  1. Generate conflict between characters
  2. Make (and keep) promises
  3. Raise the stakes
  4. Focus on primitive needs and motivations
  5. Don’t be afraid to pull the rug out from under your readers with “Yes, but…” and “No, and…”

If you use these, either singularly or in combination, you’ll quickly craft stories that keep your reader turning page after page. We’ll talk about how to give your reader a break from the tension, though, in a later post. In the meantime, if you haven’t checked out the site for my upcoming novel, Burner, I’d suggest you start now. We’re shooting for publication in spring of 2017, and the site is starting to take off. I’ll be posting art, story snippets, and exploring the world of Mediums and the science behind the magic. You can find the site here or sign up for the mailing list if you want regular updates. I’ll also start posting more about my experiences self-publishing and getting ready for that (so far, it’s just been commissioning art and trying to find an editor, though both of those things would be interesting topics to discuss at a later date and time). Have a great night, and I’ll see you all on Friday.


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