Tension is Everything: An Introduction

Tension is defined as trouble on the page. Tension is conflict, and is a technique writers use to keep readers guessing, forcing them to wait, making them worry, wonder, hope; it keeps the reader off balance. Without tension, a writers cannot hold the reader’s interest.

There is a ton of beautiful writing that fails to keep the reader engaged. Tension allows the writer to ensure their prose has enough pull to keep the reader, well reading.

A tip: Keep every line, sentence, stanza, etcetera in your prose closely focused on what the character wants, and what is keeping them from getting it. Present this desire both externally and internally.

Desire without danger is pathetic at worst, and boring at best. It can be beautiful, but boring writing.

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When the writer combines what the character wants (desire), and the danger or harm that will come to the person if they get it, they automatically create tension. These risk factors need not be battles, high octane action scenes, or murders. Often the subtle, and tiny annoyances create the most tension.

Ways to Decrease and Increase Tension:

Decreases TensionIncreases Tension
Things are okayThings are not okay
GeneralizationSpecific information; intimate details
One thing is going onTwo or three things happening at once
Linear, chronological expositionLeaps
Moving ahead as expectedReversals
Having all needs met, ease, simplicityWanting something badly, needing, yearning
Overcoming obstacles easilyThwarted again and again
Solution = resolutionSolution to problem creates ew problem
Explanation, tellingMystery, withholding
Static character, doing nothingCharacter in action
Character alone with thoughtsCharacter in a triangle with two other characters
Speeches, interior dialoguesCrisp dialogue based on an argument
One technique used at length (all description, all dialogue, all interior thoughts …)Variety of techniques (dialogue first, then description, then interior thoughts, then more dialogue …)
All long or all short sentences or linesShort sentences or lines mixed up with longer ones
Seeing the big picture; long shotsSeeing things from very close up
(Sellers 236)

A common mistake beginning writers make is filling whole pages with direct dialogue. These conversations do not often create images in their reader’s mind; No images, no tension. Examples would be: character’s stating the obvious (in direct dialogues), monologues, long speeches, and anything predictable create weak creative writing.

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”

Mark Twain

There is no reason to use dialogue to capture a happy moment. The skilled writer can, for example, cover a scene in two words, they kissed, and move on to the next moment of tension (Sellers). A good way to sustain tension in dialogue, is to remember that dialogue never happens outside human action.

Tension is a subject worthy of an entire book. I did not even bring up practices of layering with triangles, layering images, and layering dialogue and action. These are all important concepts that will be discussed in later posts.

I want to hear your thoughts. How have you weaved tension? What are some of your favorite tense scenes in anything you have read or watched? Have you found any material out there that improved your writing? Comment at the bottom of the page.

Source: Sellers, Heather. The Practice of Creative Writings, 3rd Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s Publishing. Boston, MA. 2017.

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9 responses to “Tension is Everything: An Introduction”

  1. Not exactly a material= in high school, I was given the advice of “just write, don’t stop”. I use that method in my 1st draft, and after that draft, that is when the editing happens.

    1. Simply writing is the best path forward. One does not want to overthink their process, but like always, anyone can write; only writers revise well. Instructions like these and others are part of the story planning, revision phases, etcetera. Tension is everything, and like wood carving, a great deal of winnowing happens, before what the artist had in mind emerges.

      1. At some point into Tale of the Cattail Forest, for some reason my characters decided to take over= so I let them. Another piece of advice- when your characters start writing, let them

      2. That is funny. I bet your story is already great.

      3. It is great and really improved.

        Love the story and the characters. The center of this story is friendship.

  2. Great post! I agree – tension is everything. It makes a story enticing, whether on the page or on the screen!

  3. Great post here mate! The comparison table is helpful! 🙂

    1. I’m glad it helped! I go back to it a often for reference

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