Tension, Fear, and Consequences in Fiction Writing

Tension is the underlying pulse of any story. Sometimes it races, other times it is a steady beat, but it’s always there.

And if it’s not always there, you’ve got some revision work to do.

Not every scene needs dire, harrowing tension, but it needs something to keep the reader turning pages. Watching a character sort their laundry isn’t exactly a nail biting event…unless they just took it out from a dryer at a laundromat they paid for with their last couple dollars and need it for a job interview starting in twenty minutes, and oh crap is that a stain on the shirt collar?

Linking tension to consequences is the best way to make readers feel it, too. In the above example, we understand – without even needing it explained – that the character will not make a good impression at the interview if their clothes are stained, but also that they weren’t able to prepare properly, likely indicating some other trouble in their life, and are under extreme financial strain if that was their last few dollars, all of which means that job interview could be a life changing event. All of those things contribute to the tension.

An important part of having the right amount of tension is knowing how not to break it. Parts of a story that feel “slow” or “flat” are usually signs that the tension was disrupted.

Things to avoid:

  • Make certain what is written is relevant, both to the overall story but also to the scene containing it.
  • Don’t repeat things. Readers will get bored of having the same ideas and concepts reinforced too often.
  • Negating tension leaves a reader feeling unsatisfied and let down. (There’s a reason why scary movies use jump scares rather than just showing there was nothing to worry about.)
  • Being inside a character’s head too much. If there is something going on emotionally, it’s preferable to illustrate it through dialogue rather than internal monologue.

Multiple sources of tension are a good idea, and tension can be either physical or emotional. Physical makes readers fear for a character’s safety, whereas emotional gives realism and depth to the characters. Plot level tension is different than scene level tension, and although it’s important to build plot tension throughout the story, in a single scene it can be as simple as your protagonist being in the same room as someone they really dislike.

Creating tension should always be about furthering a reader’s connection to the story or to the characters. Here are just a few ways you can infuse some tension into flat scenes, or to ramp up tension if you have some but it’s not quite enough:

  • Take away something vital
    • If you take away something that effects the Story Goal, this is plot level tension
    • If you take away something small, this will effect the outcome of a scene.
  • Raise the stakes
    • New information comes out that shows how the consequences became worse
  • Make it personal
    • Villain kidnaps someone the protagonist was trying to keep safe (also counts as raising stakes)
    • Backstory – two characters in the same room that have a history
  • Fear. What is your protagonist afraid of? Put it in the scene.
    • Indiana Jones and snakes

Tension is what will make readers call something a page turner. Lacking tension won’t kill a story, but it will make it less compelling for a a reader to make it to the end.

Have you ever received feedback that your story is slow or boring? When reading your own work, have you been able to add in moments of tension? What about a story you’ve read – can you think of one that you had trouble finishing? The comments are always open.

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