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  • Karina M. Sokulski

Writing Tension: Tips on Adding Tension to Your Story


Do you remember in school when your English teacher returned the rough draft of your essay and were told “I wasn’t hooked?” All that time research from the school library was present on the page, but your teacher was still dissatisfied. Fast forward to college when your short stories were returned, and your professor tells you “I’m not hooked.” Somehow that irritating little phrase has reappeared years later despite your growth as a writer, leaving you to ponder “what is this hook and why is it so elusive?” The hook is tension. Tension in writing is a very necessary element of any essay, article or book that serves the interest of the reader. Before we dive into the meat of this topic, let’s start off with a definition.


Tension

n. a strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each other ; a situation in which people do not trust each other, or feel unfriendly towards each other, and that may cause them to attack one another


With the start of any writing, a reader will look for that first point of tension in a story to feel motivated to stick around. If this first point is enough to keep your audience, which hopefully it is, then they will be interested in the rest of the ride. The best tip I’ve ever received on adding suspense to the first few pages, is making sure it provides a glimpse into what the readers will see throughout the story. Whether your first few pages introduce your protagonist or the plot first, establishing both are essential to using tension effectively. The list below includes the points every writer should strive to establish before even thinking about refining the use of tension.


Start with your characters


Before an audience can feel worried about the well-being of a character, make sure you’ve offered them time to get to know them. Who is our protagonist? Why should we already be caring about their safety or their ability to succeed? Make sure the connection between main character and reader has been achieved.


Establish the circumstances


In order to write suspense, make sure you’ve been clear about the circumstances faced by your characters. What makes their goal difficult (or dangerous) to achieve? What’s hindering your characters? Status? Tradition? A disability? Are your side characters confronting similar issues? Tension will be easier to express when this is all made clear.


Add the factors


It helps me to utilize the words “circumstances” and “factors” as labels even though the terms share an almost identical meaning. Circumstances I redefine as “starting point problems” and factors are “problems that come later.” They are unforeseen hurdles my characters run into on the way. They are the conditions of new obstacles my characters encounter without any prior knowledge. Be clear about how these new factors either add to already existing or create new tension altogether. Maybe your characters are on a time limit, and they encountered a literal roadblock that’s preventing their journey forward. In addition to this roadblock, your group of characters are subject to a new form of oppression and thus may need to proceed forward with less than legal means.


Show us how it all goes wrong


Some consider this a cliché dodge; I call it a trip and triumph. I’m of the variety of demonstrating how things go wrong for a protagonist. The best lessons are learned from mistakes and the most thrilling scenes come from a character adapting and succeeding following a miscalculation. I also default to this rule because a protagonist adapting from a mistake offers more character building than perfect finesse. This also helps dodge a Mary Sue impression in your first few pages.

With the preliminaries out of our way, let's start talking about the juicier elements of tension:


Revelations


Revelation

n. a fact that people are made aware of, especially one that has been secret and is surprising


In my previous blog post, Secrets & Lies, the differences between the two terms and how they are utilized in fiction are explored. The information in this post will be helpful in dissecting revelations in fiction if you are interested in the topic. Quoting that blog post:


A secret is something true that is withheld by one or many for any reason


Those reasons could be, but are not limited to, a shameful past better left forgotten, a statement brushed under the rug for the sake of oppression, a dangerous circumstance that offers power in the wrong hands, etc. The concealment of something significant is tension that writes itself and should be added to any story. In addition, a protagonist learning this secret and deciding what to do with it also offers an opportunity for suspense. Like adapting to a mistake, the answer to what to do with a secret shouldn’t be obvious because every great action earns its great consequence. A revelation should furthermore represent a piece of information your characters either misunderstand or possess no prior knowledge of.


Reveal and don't reveal (at the same time)


The first idea that will pop into many writers’ minds when reading this title is a red herring. For those who do not know what a red herring is as a writing device, here is the definition:


Red Herring

n. something, especially a clue, that is or is intended to be misleading or distracting.


A red herring is a device a reader will consistently find in mystery novels. They can also be encountered in any story that offers an air of mystery. They’re excellent devices for generating suspense because, if done well, an audience can be made to suspect the wrong character or circumstance of being the culprit behind a problem. This device won’t be the main topic of this point, but it’s worth mentioning since it’s a relevant strategy. To quote my previous blog post that is equally helpful in exploring red herrings {X}:


As a secret is a concealed truth, a lie is a something false that is not withheld and conceals the truth.


Red herrings are excellent devices but aren’t the only way to add tension to the information you do and do not divulge to the audience. Style is an element that applies here, but tension can be considerably increased by the amount of information that is not divulged. Some audience members of my work like my style of storytelling which involves knowing as little as the protagonist does and learning the bigger picture along the way. I like learning along with the characters; it’s a style I enjoy reading as much as writing. Other constructive feedback I’ve received from people who have read my work stated they prefer information be delivered upfront and not divulged over time. Readers maintain their preferences and it is completely reasonable that not every person who picks up a book will be my ideal audience. Once again, the magic rule of writing is neither of these methods are wrong. If you want the reveal of information in your story to be full of suspense and intrigue, then you may not be revealing everything at the beginning of the story.

There is a rule that I should state here, because this point is not suggesting you break it: don’t withhold too many details from the reader. This rule still applies and rather than withholding too much information from the audience, you are instead implementing an effective design that determines how much information to divulge and when. This includes the concept of half-truths where, say, a character only tells part of a secret because concealing the rest of that truth benefits them. Half-truths remain a practical method of delivering your audience some truth to hold onto while you keep the other half for later.

Tension comes naturally when you figure out a pace that determines when a lie is told and when a secret is revealed. When your protagonist has nothing to go on but a falsehood, they inevitably have to come upon a secret. It may not be a secret that directly relates to the lie that brought them there, but it is a truth that should call into question the validity of any lies that follow. A red herring is an example of this. That device offers a short-lived lie that will inevitably lead to a secret. That secret and the truth it’s hiding, will inform the character on reexamining the validity of information they are receiving. What's more, when a falsehood is revealed by the truth, tension mounts when a character has to accept that they've been deceived. Why the deception occurred at all can be tabled for a later confrontation while you, as the writer, address the immediate shock of either a traitor or a societal betrayal.


Conflicts among enemies and friends


I have a self-established rule when it comes to handling character conflict. Whether this involves allies or enemies to my protagonist, the cardinal rule is as follows: every character has their own agenda and morals and is under no obligation to pledge their loyalty (or rivalry) to the protagonist if they are not inspired to. If you’ve prepared a twist where a partner will inevitably betray your main character, make sure you adhere to the ally’s motivations. Don’t write in a betrayal just to have suspense. Don’t have an enemy switch sides just to include a twist. Don’t develop a protagonist who commands the loyalty (or rivalry) of other characters without deserving it. Write a main character that’s a total flake when it comes to execution. Invent a situation where this costs them a dear friend. Next write an enemy who takes that friend’s place and molds a radically different protagonist. Dynamic changes that come from mistakes are immensely exciting.


Internal Conflict


Where conflict gets intimate with your protagonist’s headspace. This point manifests in several possible ways. Sometimes this conflict manifests as disputing allies forming sides the main character can’t choose between. Other times the protagonist unearths a secret that forces them to make a choice where someone’s going to get hurt. Internal conflict can also manifest in the form of a character’s lack of confidence or being self-aware of a debilitating condition. Usually internal strife is inspired by the physical world but explored within. This conflict is about making a choice that will invite direct consequences endured by all parties involved. This struggle will be written out to serve the audience in expressing how the protagonist is feeling and if they later are affirmed or regret the decision they made.


Slow down that pace


This aspect of writing tension was the toughest for me to accomplish until I started getting it right. It’ll involve practice but once you realize not all suspense has to involve cars flipping and gunslinging, you’ll open yourself to different pacing. Now don’t get me wrong, intense action is suspenseful but its only one of many methods of tension to add to a story. I’ve developed a love for slow-paced, spine-chilling suspense in my writing probably because of the horror movies and video games I’ve grown up on. There’s something incredible about feeling that sense of dread while you watch a character creep down a hallway with nothing but a kitchen knife in their trembling fist.

I wrote a short story once where physically all that happened was a duo went upstairs because they heard doors slamming somewhere. This scene ends with an intruder bursting through the door and attacking the protagonist—thrilling—but everything before was silence and sneaking up a flight of stairs— not thrilling. I received compliments for this scene because internally the protagonist was debating in their head if their partner was planning on assassinating them or not, factoring in the intruder possibly being a hired hitman. This continuous debate, processed through third person narrative, lasted the course of climbing the staircase and reaching the door. The help of visual cues being misunderstood and deductive reasoning jumping to conclusions made for a genuinely tense scene, despite its leisurely pace.


The pacing you actually need


This is an extension of slowing down pace but with more focus on your tempo as a writer. What I mean by this is, every author will conform to their own method of writing tension. Some favor a more leisurely pace while others prefer remaining lively and quick. Some writers spend more time on internal rather than external conflict. The beauty of writing is that none of these preferences are wrong. This is a matter of exploring which of these methods suits you best. This is also about exploring what method of writing suspense your story needs to conform to. A slow-paced horror story, for example, will compel its writer to select a completely different momentum than what would be required of a steampunk sci-fi novel. Some factors determine what momentum your story will need, and those elements are not limited to their genre. Zombie fiction is considered fast paced horror. A noir detective story can be considered more moderately paced, even if it’s set on Mars. The circumstances you establish, the genre you pick, and the type of protagonist you’ve developed will help determine the proper tempo. Your exploration of those factors is all that is required to determine pacing.

I could go on and on with lists of tips and advice but as a firm believer of “show don’t tell” visual learning is exceedingly helpful. As writers we analyze the authors we enjoy the most and apply those lessons to our own writing. Many writers also analyze their favorite movie directors and script writers for the exact same purpose. Many times, I’ll rewatch a film armed with a pad of paper and a pen and take notes on scenes that spark my creativity. This strategy had been put to practice so often that my writing brain never stops analyzing what I’m seeing on the screen. Adding movie watching to your training tools as a writer, will further help you understand how to write suspense when you’re seeing it done right. Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about:


John Carpenter's The Thing

Based on John W. Campbell's novella, Who Goes There?


I’ll state it up front: no, I have never read Campbell’s novella and I should. The Thing is my favorite horror movie of all time because of its incredible use of tension and its ability to switch between fast and slow-paced horror. This film focuses on the “traitor among us” scenario where a group of men are trying to solve a problem while learning the parameters of their situation as they go. I always recommend this film to anyone wanting to learn how to write tension because of how seamlessly the story demonstrates various ways to utilize suspense. The constant tension of this film stems from the fact that no character in the story truly knows how the creature operates and control over the situation is impossible to achieve. The action-packed, nail-biting moments are reserved for when the creature is either exposed or attacks and the slower paced moments are completely dedicated to watching the cast use deductive reasoning. Some genres like horror or mystery will typically demand a mix of customary pace of their genre. Slower pacing can be utilized in other genres, however, even if it’s not a usual tempo. A more leisurely pace in a crime fiction story can weave an equally thrilling tale even though it’s not considered traditional.


Another example of tension outside of the elegance of slow-paced horror:


Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs


Six criminals with pseudonyms, and each strangers to one another, are hired to carry out a robbery. The heist is ambushed by police and the gang are forced to shoot their way out. At their warehouse rendezvous, the survivors, realizing that they were set up, try to find the traitor in their midst.


Before we dive into this example, there’s an excellent video that applies Reservoir Dogs to a lesson in storytelling by Jack’s Movie Reviews. Check out the video here: [X].


Reservoir Dogs is another film with a “traitor among us” scenario where a cop amongst a group of criminals tipped off their attempted bank robbery. The story is a small, character-driven drama where an immoral group tries to survive and can’t reach consensus on how to resolve their problem. Many before me have dissected this film and genius screenplay because it deserves the constant attention. The suspense from this movie stems from observing six criminals constantly work to outwit each other just to survive their circumstances—with little motivation to actually overcome their problem. Yes, I said six, but you’ll have to see the movie to find out why. I recommend this film to people not just for its use of tension but also for its use of characters. Tension writes itself in this story for the following reasons: trust is off the table and no good deed will go unpunished. These are both concerns that profoundly affect the actions of every character involved. Instead of a literal monster, this story faces a dilemma amongst a group that aren’t willing to work together. A turbulent group of characters can provide more than enough tension than a group of characters being affected by a singular entity.


What do they have in common?


By now you can gather there are some similarities here. Below is a simplified list of the commonality and differences between the two examples provided:


Tension can come from within and without a group. Every character regardless of the scenario won’t agree on how to solve a problem. Every character in the story will be subject to making tragic mistakes, even if the consequences don’t affect them directly. Motivation is another factor to consider when creating turbulence between your characters. As the writer of your story, it will be your task to consider factors such as these when adding intensity to your story. Since lists are so helpful when editing your writing, I've provided a list below of questions I ask myself when reviewing my work.


The questions to ask


What is the problem that needs to be solved?


What's preventing the solution from being obtainable?


What, or who, is making your characters doubt themselves?


Who looks suspicious and why?


What's the first tragic mistake that can be made?


Who's the most likely in this group to make the first mistake?


Is trusting one another a liability?


Who among the group have formed alliances?


Who among the group would be the first to cut and run?


You get the idea, but phrasing questions around what can and can't go wrong in a scene is key to adding suspense to any story. When you understand your characters and what they are capable of, generating questions relevant to your scenes become a lot easier. There's plenty to explore when it comes to writing tension and practice to go with it. An enormous part of this exploration involves you, as the writer, discovering your own rhythm. The worthiest place to start is to analyze your favorite authors and film directors to observe how they accomplished what you strive to accomplish. From there, implement your lessons and see what kind of heart-thumping suspense you're capable of.