William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

It’s been awhile since I visited the Writer’s Digest 25 Ways to Improve Your Writing in 30 Minutes a Day.  I noticed that Emmie Mears recently finished off her review of these tips, and I felt like such a loser for dropping the ball that I promised myself I would do at least one tip review during NaNoWriMo.

So here it is:

19. Tension
Tension results from two factors: resistance and ambiguity. In nearly every piece of narrative writing, fiction or otherwise, someone is trying to achieve something. Tension results from external or internal opposition to achievement of the goal (resistance), or uncertainty as to the narrator or character’s understanding of the situation in which she finds herself (ambiguity), specifically its perils (psychological, emotional, physical).

Tension is essential because it keeps readers reading. Thus, in every scene you write, strive to heighten tension by doing one of two things: Enhancing the forces impeding achievement of the goal, or confusing/complicating the narrator or character’s understanding of the situation.

At the end of every writing session, take time to find and stress those elements within the narrative that serve these purposes. Trim away elements that do not, unless they add necessary color.

That advice is pretty much spot on.  In one of my writing classes, I learned the dreaded writing formula: the three-act story structure along with scenes and sequels.

Though there are lots of reasons not to go the formulaic way, it works for me and let me tell you why: forced tension.

The scene/sequel method I learned demands that each “scene” contain the following:

  • A Goal (Mmmm, I’m thirsty, I need a drink of water.)
  • Conflict (Mmmm, no clean glasses in the cupboard.) – tension builder
  • Disaster (Dope! Faucet doesn’t work either!) – tension builder

Which leads your character to the “sequel” part of the overall scene:

  • Reaction/Emotion (I’m bummed, and haven’t had any water for over two days.  I’m gonna die of thirst!)
  • Dilemma/Thought (I could go to the store and get a bottle of water but I’d have to wade through all those zombies, I could  go to the neighbors and ask that nasty old man with a huge shot-gun for a glass of water but he might shoot me, or any other completely undesirable choice) – tension builder
  • Decision (Take my chances with the zombies and get to the store before I die of thirst!)

The decision of the last sequel, then becomes the goal for the next scene.  Nice and neat, huh?  And, of course, once your character has it in mind to wade through those zombies to get to that bottle of precious water, you’ll again find some more conflict, come up with another disaster that leads your character off to another tangent.

Now, if I didn’t follow that little formula for every single thing that happens in my stories, everyone would get their way.  I instinctual do not want my main character, Andreas, to get the shit kicked out of him.  I love him.  He’s a part of me, and hurting him is the last thing I want to do.

But I just did have the shit kicked out of him, because the formula demands some conflict and a disaster.  Currently, Andreas has been captured and separated from Marcela, his ward, and he has to get back to her.  But how?  Well, he attacks the lone knight that has him, he has no other choice, but he is sorely outmatched.  Lorena comes to his aid, but not before he has been seriously hurt.  His wounds will now become conflict and tension for the next scene.

And I wouldn’t have done any of that if I didn’t look at those one-word cues to remind myself that there’s got to be conflict – at each step that my character takes.

Believe it or not, somehow it all works out, and the tension in your story just keeps getting notched up.  Of course, you can give your characters a break now and then, and you don’t always have to follow the “formula”, but it does help to keep them in mind as you write.

How do you keep the tension taut in your stories?


8 thoughts on “Tension

  1. A good analysis of tension, Nila. To really kick it up, make sure everybody in a scene wants something and a good reason for wanting it. Also, make sure the consequences for success (getting what they think they want) are far worse than the consequences for failure. That really ratchets up tension and suspense.

    1. Ohhh, good advice. I sometimes do forget about my other characters and just what it is that they want, need, etc. I don’t think I’ll take the time to sketch out each character’s scene arc, but all good things to keep in mind.


  2. Awesome! This is something I’ve been trying to read my own work and be very critical about lately…thanks for the post! I’ve never learned much about the dissection of scenes, and this definitely helped solidify some things I’ve been turning over in my head lately.

    And I LOVE the header pic.

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