Stress Your Readers Out: How to Write Tension in a Story
Ever get lost in a book? I mean, really lost, so sucked in that the world around you just fades away? You have tension to thank for that.
In stories, tension’s the thing that makes you care, makes you need to know what happens next. It’s the magic touch that turns a bunch of words into something that can keep you up all night.
Tension is incredibly important if you want to write something that people can’t put down, but it isn't easy to create. So we’re going to dig into it and figure out how you can use this powerful emotion in your storytelling.
We’ll look at:
- What it does to readers and why it’s crucial for making your stories stick in their minds
- The different kinds of tension you can use and what they add to the mix
- How tension and conflict work together to keep a story moving
We’ll also get into some techniques for creating tension—stuff like foreshadowing, getting the pace just right, and developing your characters in a way that makes readers care about them.
So, if you’re ready to dive into the world of tension and figure out how to make your readers hang on every word, stick around.
What is Tension in a Story?
In simple terms, tension is that feeling of suspense or anxiety you get when you’re just dying to know what’s going to happen next. It’s an emotional investment, a sense of uncertainty that makes you worry about the characters and keeps you turning those pages.
Tension plays a huge role in keeping readers’ noses stuck in your book. It’s genuinely what makes a story gripping and exciting. Tension’s the thing that makes a reader say, “Just one more page,” and then suddenly, it’s 2 a.m.
Without tension, a reader might just get bored and let their mind wander off, and we definitely don’t want that.
Take the Harry Potter series, for example. It is riddled with tension as Harry and the crew (canon term, according to me) face increasingly dangerous stakes against Voldemort and their own internal struggle. And it isn’t just about the fights; it’s about the smaller moments, the hints, the quidditch matches, the close calls that keep you on the edge of your seat as you’re reading about Harry chasing that darn snitch.
Tension isn’t just about life-and-death situations, after all. Even small, everyday conflicts and quiet periods, like misunderstandings between friends or secrets being kept, can create tons of tension.
It’s all about making the reader care, making them invested in what’s going on and curious about what’s going to happen next.
Now let’s dissect the specific types of tension.
Types of Tension in Literature
While you can get pretty granular, it’s commonly accepted that there are four types of tension: tension of the task, of relationships, of surprise, and of mystery.
Tension of the Task
Tension of the task is all about the challenges or obstacles a character has to overcome. It’s the mountain they have to climb, and we’re all holding our breath, wondering if they’ll make it to the top or if the loose rock means a quick fall to a long sleep.
Example: In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s journey to destroy the One Ring is one massive, tension-filled task, fraught with peril and obstacles.
Tension of Relationships
This one’s all about the interpersonal dramas and dynamics between characters. It’s the push and pull, the conflicts and resolutions in relationships that get us all tangled up emotionally.
Example: Pride and Prejudice nails this type of tension. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s evolving relationship, filled with misunderstandings and changing perceptions, creates a pull that makes you want to know if they’ll ever get together and how it’ll all play out.
Tension of Surprise
I love unexpected twists and turns that make you gasp in surprise. This type of tension pulls in unforeseen events that throw a wrench in the works, making the plot zig when you expected it to zag.
Example: Agatha Christie’s mysteries, like Murder on the Orient Express, are chock-full of this kind of tension. You’re always trying to piece things together, but just when you think you have it, a new surprise stresses you out again.
Tension of Mystery
This type of tension is built on the unknown. It’s the secrets and uncertainties that keep your readers speculating, trying to unravel the truth. This building tension is based more on not knowing than the sudden reveal of the previous tension.
Example: Sherlock Holmes stories are prime examples of tension of mystery. The intricate cases and the obscure clues make you constantly wonder about who really dunnit as Sherlock and Watson work out the high-stakes, dastardly plans.
Each of these tension types puts in the legwork to keep the plot dynamic and the readers engaged. This, in turn, makes your story full of emotions, surprises, tasks, and mysteries.
When you mix and match these tension types, play around with them, and layer them, you end up with a story that vibrates with energy, keeps readers glued to the pages, and makes them feel a whole range of emotions.
But all of these types of tension need one thing to even exist in the first place: conflict.
The Relationship Between Tension and Conflict
Conflict and tension in a story are like best buds; they don’t go anywhere without the other.
Conflict is the disagreement, the struggle, the obstacle—it’s what’s making things tough for our characters.
And tension is the anticipation, the “what’s gonna happen?” It’s your reader’s emotional response to that conflict.
You can’t have tension without opposing forces. This can be internal conflict or external conflict (or both), but some sort of disagreement or obstacle needs to be there to create tension. If nothing got in your character’s way, why would your reader be worried about what happened next?
Once you have that conflict, though, we need to make sure we create tension the right way.
Techniques to Create Tension
Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule set for writing tension. It all depends on your story, your characters, your setting, and more.
But there are some ideas you should let stew in that noggin of yours to help write effective tension in your stories.
Dropping subtle hints about what’s to come is a classic way to build tension. It makes readers start guessing and anticipating, wondering how it’s all going to pan out.
For a practical exercise, try adding a hint to a later event early in your story and think about how you’ll drop some foreshadowing breadcrumbs in later scenes. You can use Dabble’s Plot Grid to track this kind of foreshadowing, too!
How fast or slow a story moves can seriously impact the tension. Faster pacing can heighten tension, making things feel urgent and create forward momentum, while slower pacing can increase suspense, letting readers stew in their anticipation.
Practice varying your pacing: write a scene with quick, sharp sentences for high tension, and another with long, flowing sentences for slower, more suspenseful tension.
Making readers care about your characters is crucial. If readers are invested in your characters, every challenge they face becomes more tense and engaging.
Develop your characters by giving them relatable traits, flaws, desires, and fears. Sketch out a character profile, play around with their backstory and motivations, and see how it affects the tension in different scenarios.
To maintain reader engagement, it’s important to keep the tension consistent. Don’t let it drop too much, or you might lose your reader’s interest.
Introduce new challenges or conflicts when things are getting too calm, and make sure every part of your story has something that makes the reader want to keep going.
Most readers take a while to read all your words, so you need to give them a reason to keep going whenever you can.
Keeping your reader engaged means balancing tension just right throughout your story. Start with smaller conflicts and build up to larger ones, sprinkling in moments of calm to give readers time to catch their breath.
Think of your favorite stories; I’m sure you can identify peaks of intense action or drama and valleys where characters—and you—get a moment to relax.
Balancing is key to maintaining reader engagement and keeping them hooked but not overwhelmed.
Don’t Feel Tense About Writing Your Book
Just like our characters face big obstacles in their journey, us authors face the daunting task of writing a heck of a lot of words and then putting it out there for the world to judge.
If that doesn’t fill you with some tension, I don’t know what will.
Luckily, Dabble’s here to make writing your story easier (and more fun).
From character profiles to co-authoring, there are a ton of creative writing tools at your disposal. On top of those, though, are features like automatic back-ups, so you don’t need to fear losing any words, and goal setting that takes the dread out of writing tens of thousands of words.
And you can try all that and so much more for zero dollars and zero cents by clicking here. Seriously, you get 14 days of all Dabble has to offer without even punching in your credit card info.
No tension here, just great writing. So get to it.
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