Hello, Write Owls! Welcome to Day 19 of Storytelling 101. Today we’re talking about tension.
Tension is one of the most important parts of your story. If your story lacks tension, then it will lack reader engagement. What makes you turn pages in a story? The answer is most likely tension. Stories with high tension have high interest, and stories with low tension have low interest.
In order to engage your reader, you need to have tension on every page (Maass 2001). This means including micro-tension in your scenes. Micro-tension is making the reader wonder what is going to happen in the next few seconds. Micro-tension is typically formed using inner conflict and conflicting emotions. It can also involve a mild disagreement between two characters (Maass 2009). For a better explanation and breakdown of micro-tension, I highly recommend Donald Maass’s book The Fire in Fiction. Writing the Breakout Novel discusses it to some extent but nowhere near as thoroughly as his more recent book.
Each scene should serve the plot arc and/or a character arc(s). Each scene should also have some tension pertaining to these arcs. Consider what the goal(s) of the scene is. Do those goals tie into the overall story goals, or are they specific to this scene? What is the main conflict in the scene? What is at stake in this scene? How does the scene resolve?
If your scene is lacking tension, see if you can make it fit one of these three scene types: fight, seduction, negotiation. A fight is self-explanatory. Two or more forces are opposing one another. A seduction is when a character wants something and resorts to persuasion, manipulation, etc. to get it. A negotiation is when two or more forces come together to work toward an agreement. If your scene fits one of these types, it will have inherent tension (Donne 2018).
When looking at overall tension, you want to go back and forth between good/high points and bad/low points. If your story is all high points or all low points, there’s no movement and therefore no tension. When things are going well for your characters, make something bad happen. When bad things are happening, make something good happen. These are called reversals. Just be sure you don’t overdo it. Otherwise, your reader will get whiplash from going back and forth too much.
Your story will also include turning points that raise the stakes and change the status quo. These tend to happen at specific points in your story. The first is at the end of Act I. This is when your character has to get involved in the main conflict. They are leaving their normal life to address the source of the conflict, thus raising the stakes. The second is at the end of Act II, and this is when things go significantly downhill for your character as they’re reminded of the antagonist’s presence. This is when the protagonist makes a critical decision that propels them toward the climax (Donne 2021).
I highly recommend checking out the aforementioned books and the cited AuthorTube videos for more in-depth looks at tension.
These are the basics of tension. If you have any questions about this topic, please leave them in the comments; and I’ll try to answer them either as a reply or in my Q&A on Saturday.
Feel free to answer these in the comments if you want to chime in!
1) Which set of characters do you like to see tension between? E.g. the protagonist and antagonist, the protagonist and love interest, the protagonist and side characters, etc.
Donne, Alexa. “Level Up Your Scene Level Tension!” YouTube, uploaded by Alexa Donne, 12 November 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAdStXUU95Q
Donne, Alexa. “Reversals and Pinch Points – Writing Tension in Your Story.” YouTube, uploaded by Alexa Donne, 14 January 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXHutGKUdJo
Maass, Donald. The Fire in Fiction. Writer’s Digest Books, 2009.
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Writer’s Digest Books, 2001.