Do you enjoy being involved in tense situations? Probably not. In fact, human biology instinctively seeks to reduce or eliminate tension. Think about how you feel walking into a stressful job environment or how blood rushes to your palms in traffic when someone cuts you off. How about walking into that final test for class and feeling unprepared, knowing you’ll pass or fail based on the outcome? All of this is tension. In life, it’s no fun. But in stories, tension is where the magic happens.
Slick introductions, forward momentum, and captivating closures each have their own distinction in the writing space. Yet, tension is the literary glue that holds it all together. To say it in financial terms, tension is a long term investment that carries a reader’s attention from beginning to end. Tension helps writers draw readers deeper into the story by subtly persuading them to become emotionally invested.
Example #1: Sam climbed over the wooden fence to find his frisbee.
Example #2: Sam no longer heard the ferocious scratching from behind the fence. Effortlessly, he sprung over the fence to find his frisbee.
Example #3: The ferocious scratching from behind the fence stopped long enough for courage to enter Sam’s veins. Propping his broken leg on a nearby stump, he dragged himself over the fence. Pain shot through his hand as he grazed a rusty nail, bringing him to a crash on the ground and eye-to-eye with the source of his fear. Thoughts of finding his frisbee all but left his mind.
Which story would you be most likely to continue reading? Is #3 not the most fascinating? Most readers don’t consider why #3 is the best. Most writers don’t either. The simple reason is that the stakes are higher. There’s nothing very surprising or shocking or intriguing about #1. But in #3, boy oh boy, are you curious what happens next!
When you write or read tension, thoughts enter your mind instinctively. In Example #3 above, you may be wonder the following:
- Why would a boy risk climbing over a fence with a broken leg?
- Where are Sam’s parents?
- Why does he care so much about a frisbee that he’s willing to risk getting hurt?
- What is making the noise behind the fence?
- Will the noise maker hurt Sam?
- How will Sam get back over the fence if there is no stump on the other side?
- How badly is Sam bleeding?
- Will the injury prohibit him from climbing back over the fence?
Tension. Tension. Tension. Not all tension is this serious. For those of you who write children’s books, Ann Whitford Paul notes an excellent example in her book, Writing Picture Books. She describes a boy going to the store. This simple adventure can have tension added if he must buy his mother a present for her birthday or if money is limited or if he comes across something on the way. The more challenges he may experience in having a successful outcome pulls the reader in more and more. Tension is described elsewhere as change. When the character or story experiences an unexpected change, tension is produced.
On your quest for tension, it’s important to note that tension should not be added or created simply for tension’s sake. It is only beneficial when it supports the overall intent of the story or adds extra dimension to the characters.
There are quite a few excellent articles available that further navigate the topic of tension and how to use it effectively. Writer’s Digest wrote one on How to Build Tension and Heighten the Stakes that is well worth your time and NowNovel succinctly described How to Create Tension in a Story.
If you’re curious what happened to our example friend, Sam, be sure to ask in the comments below.