Tension is vital for any story. It’s what grips the reader, what keeps them hanging on from page to page and chapter to chapter. Tension can be intense who's-going-to-die moments, or subtler ones that arouse curiosity.
It exists primarily for the reader. Your characters may bite their nails with worry, but if your reader shrugs and puts the book down, the story will stand still.
Tension is about the presumed emotional impact of possible consequences… Holding the protagonist at gunpoint is tense because the reader can imagine how they’ll feel if the gun is fired.”—Robert Wood
Let's take a look at eight different ways to incorporate tension into your writing and get readers flipping those pages.
1. Get readers attached to your characters
Readers need to be invested in your characters, and their actions’ outcomes. A boring or shallow protagonist won't stir tension in a reader. Readers can be attached to characters intellectually with puzzles – most common in mystery stories – or emotionally.
Well-developed characters have a higher emotional resonance. Active characters are also easier for readers to engage with than passive ones; if your protagonist doesn’t do anything to affect the plot, there’s no real reason for the reader to care what they’ll do next.
2. Heighten the stakes
Stakes are what the protagonist struggles against, what they stand to lose if the antagonist is successful. A good way to identify or choose the best stakes is to look at the protagonist’s fears.
You can either raise the prize for succeeding, or raise the price of failure – or, preferably, both at the same time.”—Ian Irvian
Tension can be created by manipulating the stakes. Below, we’ll look at the most common techniques to turn stakes into tension.
Set the clock ticking
From the bestseller The DaVinci Code to the classic Cinderella, the “ticking clock” is a tried and tested technique to keep readers on the edge of their seat. Quite simply, it means imposing a time limit, either on the protagonist’s goal or the antagonist’s.
There are hundreds of ways to incorporate this technique in your story, from an actual clock to an approaching army, or the upcoming school dance. The “ticking clock” also goes particularly well with ultimatums.
Introduce change and uncertainty
Any sort of change, inner or outer, from the past or the present, can throw your protagonist off-balance. Remember that the best stakes are seeded by the character’s fears.
Does your character fear a past mistake coming to light? A friend betraying them? The death of a loved one? The greater the protagonist fears the cause or result of the change, the greater the tension.
When a character is threatened by a change, she often reacts badly or with desperation, creating more tension in turn.”—Jessica Page Morrell
When a character is thrown off-balance, they may act rashly or a little out-of-character. Anything could happen. The uncertainty of how characters will react creates tension as the reader desires to know what happens.
Incorporate twists and revelations
A twist comes up suddenly, and can be as dramatic as learning that Snape was following Dumbledore’s orders when he killed him, to a character simply acting in an unexpected way.
Revelations are built up more slowly with literary devices such as foreshadowing, and result in that “a-ha” moment. While not as dramatic as a twist, the slow anticipation as the reader tries to guess what will be revealed is an equally important type of tension.
Include tension in your sub-plots
Remember to add tension to your sub-plots, as well are your main plot. The stakes from the protagonist opposing the antagonist are central to your story, but shouldn’t be the only ones.
Tension from multiple sources is powerful, giving the feeling that everything is closing in on the protagonist. It also helps keeps your protagonist busy and off-balance while the antagonist builds up their big plan.
3. Create character conflict
Conflict is a great source of tension. And with those well-developed characters your reader is emotionally invested in, character conflict is especially effective in creating tension.
Emotional tension is the most palpable and troubling to the reader (and that’s a good thing): fear of damaged love and intimate betrayals and irreversible emotional wounds creates a more vibrant and spectacular tension in the audience.”—Chuck Wendig
Another side of character conflict is character mystery. Consider revealing some backstory and character traits a little later in the story; keep the reader wondering and guessing who they really are.
Markus Zusak does this in (I am) The Messenger, leaving the reader to guess at the mastermind behind the strange missions the protagonist receives.
While leaving little mysteries are okay, big ones should be resolved to the reader’s satisfaction.
Whether as part of your main plot, or a sub-plot, tension in relationships is understandable to readers. And, as humans can be unpredictable, it's fascinating to watch relationship conflicts unfold.
Conflict always occurs between antagonist and protagonist, but can happen between any characters: the sidekick, a lover, henchmen. Usually it's good to focus your conflicts to include the protagonist, or at least one well-developed character your reader is attached to.
One of the key moments for relationship conflict is during conversation. Writing characters dodging questions, suddenly changing topic, and talking over each other are just some techniques to amp up the tension with dialogue.
Adding internal conflict to any decision will up the tension; the hero has to slay the dragon to rescue the princess, but can’t forget how much he loved his pet dragon when he was a kid. A simple, predictable choice becomes uncertain.
Tension is strongest when it arises both from forces outside of the character and those within.”—NowNovel
Introducing backstory or revealing new information relevant to a character’s choice of action are the two ways to ignite internal conflict. Characters are forced to re-examine their goals against their limitations.
When a character is overwhelmed with internal conflict, it’s a great opportunity to use defence mechanisms. Defence mechanisms are a range of studied psychological reactions humans resort to when feeling threatened, powerless or confused. Sometimes these defences can even make the situation worse, and result in relationship conflict or rash action.
4. Master the art of pacing
Tension and pacing aren’t the same thing, but they are great tools to use in partnership. Pacing is manipulated through the length of words, sentences and paragraphs.
Fast pacing is urgent, short, sharp and to the point. It doesn't waste time with unnecessary details. There's no time. The moment is now.
Slow pacing can be gentle, or it can carefully prepare the reader for the moment: the calm before the storm. It's the faint rustle of leaves on the dark moonlit night, the pavement still damp from the rain, the harsh sound of your breath, the scuff of footsteps echoing in the empty street.
Whether it’s applied to a single scene or the plot as a whole, pacing is the speed at which your reader thinks things are progressing.”—Bronwyn Hemus
Fast pacing is great for action scenes and the crescendo of built-up tension; slower pacing can be used for breaks in tension, or to build tension with anticipation and suspense.
The best pacing for a scene may be clear, or you may need to experiment writing it a few different ways. Pacing is fluid: increasing and decreasing in a single scene, and in the plot overall.
5. Time your tension effectively
Tension is important to maintain on some level throughout the whole story. Naturally, this tension will come to points where it peaks and where it relaxes.
Generally, peaks should include a decision for the protagonist. Tension may be the cause or the effect of the decision, but if your protagonist is presented with a choice – whether they actually choose or not – that's a flag to heighten the tension.
Common plot structures
Below is a brief outline of key moments for high tension to build your overall plot tension around. There's no hard and fast rule for exactly when or how often tension should be high; stories come in all different shapes and structures.
You need speed in the opening, middle, and climax of your story.”—Courtney Carpenter
The outline looks at three common story structures: the Three-Act Structure, the Dramatica Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey. Even if your story doesn't work with any of these structures, try to see if some points in your story are similar to the ones listed.
- Inciting incident
- Plot point 1
- Plot point 2
- The black moment*
*The black moment is often depicted as a low action point; however, this shouldn't be accompanied by a drop in tension.
Dramatica Act Structure
- Act 1
- Overall Throughline
- Main Character Throughline
- Impact Character Throughline
- Relationship Throughline
- Act 2
- Overall Throughline
- Main Character Throughline
- Impact Character Throughline
- Relationship Throughline
- Call to adventure / Refusal of call
- Crossing the threshold
- Ordeal, death and rebirth
- Reward, seize the sword*
*Depending on what the reward is, this moment might be an explosion of tension, or its release.
Lulls in tension are important to keep the reader interested, but not worn out. They also help emphasis the "gap": a moment of dropped tension contrasts against increased tension.
Sometimes these lulls are the calm before the storm. If so, be sure to make the action that follows the lull doubly intense.”—Jessica Page Morrell
The story's genre largely dictates how often to use breathers. For example, a romance has more than a thriller. The target age group is also important; YA novels are typically high-paced with lots of tension and fewer rests.
Breathers shouldn't go on for too long: somewhere between a sentence and a single scene. The length you choose will depend on your genre and how close you are to your climax.
When dropping tension, you need to maintain reader interest. A short moment can be the relief and victory when a character survives an ordeal or succeeds in a challenge. Longer breathers can include hints and foreshadowing to gently remind the reader of the stakes.
6. Introduce exponential tension
A reader may become disinterested if, halfway through the book, a character faces a problem with a similar or greater level of consequences to a challenge they’ve already survived.
Order your points of tension in increasing value. If your story starts with a bomb about to go off, you’ll need to work hard to keep upping the stakes: a bigger bomb, or a direct attack on a loved character.
Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or relational well-being.”—Steven James
Tense situations can be familiar to all, or be directly important to a character the reader is attached to. Maybe your story starts with your protagonist disarming their hundredth bomb, but while they have confidence in their technical abilities, they’re terrified of that job interview coming up.
7. Consider using cliffhangers
When you get down to it, a cliffhanger is a question, implied or otherwise. Is the character dead? Will they accept the proposal? What’s behind the door?
Cliffhangers at the end of a novel often frustrate readers, but they can work well at the end of chapters. They don't have to be big, earth-shattering questions. It doesn't even need to be a new question. Just something to increase tension, anticipation or curiosity.
A cliffhanger isn’t supposed to be drawn out – it should just hit the reader quickly and be resolved within the first few pages afterwards.”—Jennifer Maldonado
8. Ask yourself: To reveal, or not to reveal?
If you have a high-impact piece of information, you may be wondering whether to reveal it near the beginning, middle or end. The answer is all about which creates the best tension.
Ask yourself: is it more interesting for the character to struggle while knowing the information, or realise the truth after their actions? Then ask whether it's more interesting if the reader is aware of the true stakes while watching the character.
The character's personality is another aspect to keep in mind. If the plot needs a certain action to happen, would the character realistically do it if they knew or didn't know the information?
The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”—Oscar Wilde
Sometimes the act of hiding the information is more powerful than letting it be revealed early. In Star Wars when Luke Skywalker discovers that Darth Vader is his father, he also feels betrayed by his mentor Obi-Wan – who not only hid the information, but lied about it.
Mastering tension writing and self-critiquing will keep readers engaged and hooked on your story. It's a technique that requires practice, reflection and feedback. But once you're done, you'll have a real page-turner in your hands.