When I think of tension in a story, my first thought is of suspense. We are waiting for something to jump out of a dark corner or for the final confrontation between hero and villain. Our bodies are tense, preparing for what my 13-year-old son calls “the jump-scare.” And yes, this is certainly a tension-filled part of a story. However, we need to remember that ALL stories, no matter the genre, only work if there is tension building throughout.
What is tension?

Think of a rubber band pulled in two directions. You can pull it lightly, or you can pull it until it starts to fray. When you build tension in your novel, you will utilize all levels. You don’t want to have it amped all the way up from beginning to end, because it will exhaust your reader. But you also don’t want to have no tension, because then they will have no reason to turn the page. Tension is that thing that makes the reader want to know what happens next, to look forward to the next scene. And every book is different. In some stories, the tension is quiet, subtle. In others, it begins slowly and builds to a fever pitch.

So I want say here that there is no perfect recipe to follow to build tension. This is one of those topics where people to be told “first do this, then this, then this and the result is the perfect amount of tension.” As with all advice in the writing world, the ideas come from having been avid readers and breaking down what works – or doesn’t – in other pieces of literature. And it is subjective. What feels like a great deal of tension to one person might not feel like much to someone else. I share this not to discourage, but to be honest. I’m going to give you a few things to think about, but it is not an exhaustive list, so I encourage you to also notice how tension builds in books you are reading and make note of how the author is doing it. I also encourage you to do your own reading and investigating into how to build tension from other teachers, and then choose the advice that works best for you.

Without further ado, here are some ways that you can build tension in your story.

  1. Have two characters that want different things, but are thrown together in some way. Think about a marriage where the spouses have different goals, or two neighbors who disagree over land usage.
  2. Play with foreshadowing. Give the reader subtle (subtle!) hints that something is on the horizon.
  3. Go against expectations. If you think there might be a scene where a reader can probably predict what’s going to happen or how a character is going to behave, mix it up.
  4. Remember cause and effect. In each scene, there needs to be a reason why the character is there based on recent past scenes, and it needs to lead into the next one.
  5. Remember the internal growth of the protagonist and secondary characters. Every decision they make is based on what they want or need.
  6. Leave the reader wondering…but not too much. It is okay to leave some things unsaid, to make the reader want to turn the page to understand why something just happened or what the character meant by what he just said.
  7. Raise the stakes. Keep asking yourself: what does this character want right now, and what would happen if she didn’t get it? If what would happen isn’t that big of a deal, then the stakes are not high enough.
  8. When you slow down the action, raise the emotional tension. Physical action in a story builds tension in a more tangible way, but sometimes that action has to slow down to serve the story. In those moments, find ways to make the emotional tension more intense.

Again, this was not an exhaustive list of ways to build tension in your novel, nor is it essential that you use all of these strategies all of the time. Consider them some tools that you can keep in your toolbelt to experiment with as you draft and revise.

Building tension in a novel is essential for keeping the reader reading. It’s a combination of internal emotions, individual behavior and external events that will make us want to turn the page again and again. And this is how your story will make an impact.

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