Creating a tense atmosphere in a story is a true skill, and in this guide, you’re going to learn how to build and create tension in writing.
Can you think of a moment in a novel or story when you lost all awareness of your surroundings? The only thing that mattered was happening on the page, and then at the end, you come up for air and utter “damn.”
We’ll also take a look at the purpose of tension and the impact it has on readers. To help build your understanding we’ll look at some examples and a very handy infographic too.
Choose A Chapter
- What Is Tension In Writing?
- What Is The Purpose Of Creating Tension In A Story?
- How To Create Tension In Writing
- How To Build Tension
- Tension In Writing – Example
- Creating Tension In Writing – Infographic
- How To Create Tension In Writing – A Summary
- More Guides On Creative Writing
In reality, we don’t like a life full of tension. In fiction, however, the opposite is true. As readers we love stress and tension; we seek it out. When we read pages laden with tension a hormone is released into our bloodstream which stimulates the heart and increases blood pressure, in turn provoking an adrenal high. This excitable feeling is what readers crave.
But like most things, too much of it and you’ll get bored. That’s why, at this early point in the article, it’s important to set out the difference between suspense and tension. Suspense can span across chapters, an entire book even. Tension can last mere seconds or minutes.
Sol Stein in his book, On Writing, uses a good example to illustrate this. Think of tension as an elastic band. The more it’s stretched the looser and weaker it becomes until eventually, it snaps. Use too much tension and you’ll break the elastic band in your reader’s head.
Click Here To Learn More About Creating Suspense In Writing
You may ask yourself what the purpose of creating tension in a story is. As we’ve seen in the section above, tension helps writers draw their readers deeper into the story, to hook them to the page and story. Tension can also help readers build an emotional connection with the story. If a likeable character is in danger, for instance, they’ll want to know how they fare.
Tension can flow through all aspects of storytelling, from character and plot to the theme or premise. One of the best ways of creating tension in writing is to introduce conflicts, which we’ll explore next.
Click Here To Learn More About How To Plot A Story
The best way to create tension in writing is to introduce conflicts or obstacles for your characters. These obstacles could be other characters, such as your villain or antagonist. They could also be internal barriers, like mental health problems. Or they could be physical conflicts like a blood-thirsty dragon.
Foreshadowing this conflict is a key part of building tension. Dropping hints of what may come can hook the reader and keep them wanting more.
Let’s look at some specific examples of how you can build up tension:
- One way is to include strange, mysterious, or chilling facts. Sol Stein takes an excellent example from The Day of the Jackal by Fredrick Forsyth, which demonstrates how in one sentence tension can be conjured.
“It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.”
How did you feel reading this sentence? Did you want to know more? Did questions pop into your mind? Who is being executed? For what? Why that time of day? All of these questions create tension and encourage us to keep reading.
- Friction is another way to build tension. Situations which don’t go together, the clash of opposing forces.
- Dialogue is an effective method of creating tension. Confrontational dialogue can have readers turning pages faster than a man reading a magazine in an oncologist’s waiting room.
- Using tension early on in a book or story can allow the writer to take control of the reader’s emotions. You grip them with your words, and in exciting them they allow you to take them along on your adventure.
- One thing you can do to spark some tension is to move a specific sentence to another location. The purpose is to stretch out the tension as much as possible. Look at Stein’s example:
“I was heading over to Uncle Urek’s before I got your message. He in trouble again?”
A fog of silence descended. Nobody looked at anybody else. Finally, Feeney said, “She doesn’t know.”
How about moving one line?
“I was heading over to Uncle Urek’s before I got your message.”
A fog of silence descended. Nobody looked at anybody else.
“He in trouble again?”
Finally, Feeney said, “She doesn’t know.”
Notice the difference? Simple and effective.
Once you’ve planted the seed of tension, it’s important to nurture it so that down the line, it blossoms wonderfully.
When it comes to building that tension, focusing on foreshadowing the conflict to come is one of the most effective methods you can employ.
In short, foreshadowing is the promise of conflict. It quite simply is all about teasing, intriguing and promising your readers that action is coming.
Once that tension is there, you do not want to dispel it immediately. Dangle the resolution in front of the reader’s nose, always just out of reach. Think of an incident, in life or one you’ve read about, where a pressing situation arises, but all of a sudden it’s over and everyone returns to their normal routines—the tension gone.
Imagine this. You hear a noise in the next room, but you know you’re alone in the house. The keys of the piano jingle inside. Your heart freezes, but you toughen your resolve and pull open the door. And the cat runs out. Bit anti-climactic?
How could the tension be prolonged? Could the character get a phone call, one they must answer, or does someone knock on the front door? They want to uncover what’s going on in the room, but not just yet.
Click Here To Learn More About Foreshadowing Conflict
To cement our understanding of tension in writing, here’s an example. It’s one I’ve made up, but it’s based on many similar scenes you may have seen or watched before.
The stone house sat alone on the coast, standing firm against the cold, buffeting wind. Darkness had long since fallen, the moon and stars hidden by cloud. In the gloom beyond the garden gate, a shadow shifted, circling the weathered wooden planks, seeking a way through. There, a broken beam. Not wide enough. Harder it pushes, wood snapping, cracking. The wind died with the sound. Orange light flooded over the sodden grass before the window of the house. A bespectacled face peered out with narrowed eyes and drops the cup she held loosely in her hand.
Hopefully, you could sense the tension building up as that paragraph goes on. And even toward the end, it’s built up further and further, with no end in sight. To help me achieve this I used key details to draw the reader in—it’s dark, cold, windy, isolated. I deliberately left out any detail of the “shifting shadow”. To do so right away gives the reader the answer way too soon. But we get a suggestion that it must be something horrifying when the person in the house drops their mug.
More Examples Of How To Build Tension In A Story
Thanks to Sol Stein for recommending these:
- Dangerous work is involved. A soldier on the front line; a space engineer repairing the outside of a ship. When writing this kind of story or scene, exploring the tiny details of the type of work involved increases tension.
- A deadline is nearing. You’ve got twenty-four hours, or the girl gets it. Deadlines are used in many clever ways. James Barclay used one in Noonshade, where a portal to the realm of dragons is inching open and the heroes must race to close it before hordes of fire-breathing man-eaters invade Balaia.
- An unfortunate meeting occurs. Someone from a character’s past reappears, perhaps an old enemy or lover. Or running into the wrong person at the wrong time.
- An opponent trapped in a closed environment. Stein gives a wonderful example here, which I’ll paraphrase: A lion has escaped its enclosure and chased a woman into a cellar storeroom. The ageing zoo ranger is the only one onsite with a rifle. When he arrives at the scene a younger man offers to take the rifle and the old man gives him it. As the pair are about to descend into the cellar the younger man begins shaking, his handling of the weapon reeking of inexperience. The ranger offers to take it back, and the younger man hands it over. At the head of the cellar stairs, the ranger hears the lion below, but can’t see clearly. Holding the rifle with one hand he takes out a torch. He struggles to balance both the rifle and torch, tries to hold the latter in his mouth, but it’s too big. As he puts the torch down the crazed lion bounds up the cellar steps.
In this example, Stein keeps on increasing the tension, stretching it out. First, the old man hands over the rifle, then the younger man hands it back, then the old ranger struggles to see into the cellar, then struggles using both rifle and torch, until at last the lion leaps. Wouldn’t it be so much more boring if he arrived, looked into the cellar and the lion jumped at him?
Which Situation Would Most Likely Create Tension In A Story?
Coming up with the ideal situation that creates tension in a story can be tough. But there’s a plotting device that you can use called the Crucible that can help you narrow your focus.
In its simplest form, the Crucible plotting device seeks to place two characters in a situation not unlike being locked in a crucible. If you’re unfamiliar with what this is, it’s a ceramic or metal container used for melting metals at extremely high temperatures.
In a writing context, it’s a situation in which you place two opposing characters—the protagonist and antagonist—and turn up the heat by introducing a whole load of conflict.
So for example, you could have a neo-nazi locked in an elevator with an Hasidic jew. We have two characters that fundamentally oppose each other, locked in a situation.
Click Here To Learn More About The Crucible
The great folks over at Now Novel have put together this very handy guide on how to create tension in writing. Hope it helps!
Click here to learn more about creating tension in writing
Here are a few summary points on what we’ve covered on how to create tension in writing:
- Always seek to stretch out tension. Remember the elastic band analogy. Stretch it out too much and it’ll break.
- Add steps or mini detours within scenes to prolong tension. Anything that keeps the end at bay.
- Use tension early on in a story to grab a hold of the reader’s emotions.
- Chilling language, dialogue, sentence structure, and conflicting or confrontational situations can all create tension. (Click here for dialogue writing examples)
Before I leave you, I wanted to point you in the direction of some other writing guides on creating tension you may appreciate.
A chapter on building tension by Bryan Fry,; published by Washington State University
A guide on conflict in literature; Oregon State University
Here are some other more general writing guides that you may find useful:
Thanks for reading this guide on how to create tension in writing.