Ways To Increase Your Story’s Tension
Ways To Increase Your Story’s Tension
Tension is a beautiful thing in fiction. It’s so subtle that readers (and often writers!) don’t realize its presence on the page, but trust me, it’s pull is powerful. It’s the stuff of page-turners, what keeps readers on the edge of their seats and up until 2am. It’s one of the greatest tools you can wield as a writer.
What is Tension?
Tension is the anticipation of what will happen next in a story. It’s driven by the reader’s concern for the characters and/or their curiosity to know the outcome of a conflict. “Conflict” is the clash between two opposing sides. Conflict is the foundation of your story, and tension comes from conflict.
For example, in Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, the conflict is Katniss taking Prim’s place to fight in the games. She doesn’t want to fight, but the rules of her society leave her with no choice. The tension comes from the reader’s anticipation of whether or not she will survive the games.
Why is Tension Important to Story?
Tension is that “secret ingredient” that keeps readers turning pages. And that’s exactly what you want–for your reader to finish your book (and buy the next one!). A story without tension is lifeless. It drags and bores readers and is in danger of being set aside.
A lot of readers fear people reading their story, but you know what’s worse, what you should really be afraid of? Writing a story that doesn’t get read. But I’m going to help you avoid that dreaded scenario. Let’s dig into some strategies for creating tension that will help carry your readers from page one all the way to The End.
1. Tell Your Characters “No”
Don’t give your characters what they want. It may seem mean, but as an author you have to be mean to your characters. It’s tempting to treat them nice and grant them their every desire like a spoiled child, but if you give in you’ll end up with a dull story.
Does your hero want the girl? To study at a prestigious college? To avenge his friend’s murder? To buy his own boat so he can sail the world? Find out what your hero wants, what his goal is, and then do everything in your power to keep him from getting it!
2. “What’s the Worst Thing That Could Happen?”
If you haven’t already begun to figure it out from the above, as an author, your job is to make your characters’ lives miserable. Whatever situation you put them in, ask yourself what you can do to make it worse.
Let’s say Tom is on his way to his first date with the cute girl he just asked out. But on the way there his car gets a flat. He tries to call for help, but he realizes he forgot his phone at home. He starts to walk, but then it begins to rain and his new suit gets soaked. He flags down a passing car and the driver offers him a lift. But not long after, flashing blue lights appear behind them and the driver leads the police on a high-speed chase. Turns out the driver is a criminal, and when the cops catch up Tom is arrested by association. Needless to say, Tom is having a very bad day.
Getting the idea? This won’t be much fun for your character, but it’s fun for your reader! No one wants to read about how Tom went on a date and everything went fantastic. Yawn. Keep asking: How can I get my hero into trouble? How can I make this problem worse? How can I keep him from getting what he wants?
3. Create Flawed Worlds
Building flaws into your story’s world is a great way to create conflict and tension. The world in which we live isn’t perfect, and this should be reflected in your story.
For example, in The Hunger Games the whole idea of a televised fight to the death between teens is twisted and wrong. In the Mortal Instruments series, Cassandra Clare creates tension by making the Shadowhunters and Downworlders at odds with one another. In Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, cyborgs are outcasts and viewed as less than human in their society.
Know the issues of your story’s world. Not only does this give your world more depth and make it feel more realistic, but it presents you with more opportunities for conflict, which you can use to your advantage to create tension.
4. Agree to Disagree
You know what can make a story boring fast? When all of the characters are getting along. Everyone likes one another, and no one argues or disagrees. This is a danger-zone for your story!
You must throw an apple of discord among your characters.
Yes, in real life we want to avoid conflict and we want everyone to like us. But this makes for boring fiction. Characters are always more interesting when they’re not getting along. Let your characters dislike each other. Let them argue about how to solve the problem at hand. Let them disagree and have different opinions. Your reader will thank you for it!
5. Raise the Stakes
One of the best ways to increase the tension in your story is to raise the stakes. “Stakes” are the reward or consequence of your hero achieving or failing his goal.
For example, in The Hunger Games, the stakes for Katniss winning or losing the games is her life. Later in the book, the stakes are raised when it’s announced the Game Makers will allow two winners. Katniss’ reward for success has been increased because she now has the chance to save Peeta. She now has more to lose than just her own life.
Another example is in Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones. The villain, Valentine captured Clary’s mother in the beginning of the book, and towards the climax he also captures Clary’s love interest, Jace. The stakes are raised because if Clary can’t find Valentine not only will she lose her mother, but she’ll also lose the boy she’s beginning to fall in love with.
When you raise the stakes of your story, you instantly increase the reader’s anticipation of finding out what will happen next.
Of course, there are many other ways to create tension in your story than the few listed above. Be on the lookout for ways to create tension at every turn in your story! Put these techniques into practice and you’ll be well on your way to creating a thrilling ride for your reader.