How to Build Tension in Your Writing

“Is tension really important?”

Yes! Very important! Tension drives the heart of every story, even cozy mysteries or comedies.

And I already know your follow up question. “If it’s that important, what is it, and how do I capture it in my own writing?”

I’m glad you asked!

I’ve compiled a few tips and tricks to help fellow writers incorporate tension into their stories. In an ideal world, tension would flow from every corner of the narrative—everything from character interactions to the main plot. Tension is what keeps a reader invested, so obviously we’ve got to have it!

FIRST: How can you tell if there’s tension in a scene?

Tension can always be boiled down to a question. If your scene isn’t asking a question, you have no tension. Let me give you an example.

Robert sat at the kitchen table while his wife, Maria, prepared eggs. Snow covered every inch of the world outside their trailer home, but the warmth of the stove kept everything inside toasty. In half an hour, he would be off to work.

The scene above is serviceable – you understand the setting and what’s happening – but there is zero tension. There is no question being asked. Everything is just… explained.

Now look at this example. Even a few slight changes ups the tension.

Robert sat at the kitchen table while his wife, Maria, prepared eggs. He gripped his fork tight enough to hurt. Snow covered every inch of the world outside their trailer home, but the damn stove kept the inside hot. In half an hour, he would be off to work.

This scene has 100% more tension because the question being asked is: why is Robert angry? The next logical question is: what’s going to happen because of it?

Let’s go with a comedic scene.

This clip (a scene from the movie Justice League: War) is a light-hearted exchanged between Green Lantern and Batman. Green Lantern asks Bats all kinds of questions and eventually discovers Batman is just a man in a suit without any super powers.

The tension of the scene comes from the question: will these two work together?

As the viewer, you want to see if their relationship will evolve into one of hostility or camaraderie. Even though the scene is obviously meant to get you laughing, you’re still left with the question, which is the heart of tension.

SECOND: Give the reader more information than the protagonist.

This is a nice trick for upping tension without changing much in a scene. Look at our original example:

Robert sat at the kitchen table while his wife, Maria, prepared eggs. Snow covered every inch of the world outside their trailer home, but the warmth of the stove kept everything inside toasty. In half an hour, he would be off to work.

Now look at this example:

Robert sat at the kitchen table while his wife, Maria, prepared eggs. Unbeknownst to either of them, a bomb was strapped to the underside of the table, its timer slowly counting down. In half an hour, Robert would be off to work.

The question here is: will the bomb go off?

You don’t even need anything else happening in the scene, the tension is clear as day. They could have a mundane conversation about the weather and the reader would still be flipping pages, with sweat rolling down their forehead, if only to see whether or not a small trailer exploded.

When the reader knows something the protagonist doesn’t, and the protagonist otherwise acts in a reasonable manner, it creates an easy question.

Will the protagonist discover the problem before it’s too late?

Any scene or situation can be enhanced with that one question.

LASTLY: Up the stakes for failure.

An unanswered question is the heart of tension, but what gets people invested is the potential for terrible consequences.

Sure, we could have a story about a kid going to town to buy food for dinner, and the tension (read: question) would be: will he manage to get the food? But the downside isn’t that important. So what if doesn’t? They eat dinner late? They don’t eat dinner at all? Eh.

Now let’s examine Jack & the Beanstalk.

Jack is set into town to sell their only cow for scraps of food. If he doesn’t do this, it’s likely he (and his mother) will starve to death. So the question is the same: will he get the food? But the outcome is 100 times worse if he doesn’t. If he fails, he’ll likely die, which gets the reader flipping pages.

Will Jack make it back?

Oh, jeez! He bought beans instead of food? What was he thinking!?

Huh? They’re magical?

Whoa, they grew into a beanstalk? Where does it go?

Do you see how the story logically flows into the next question? That’s how you KEEP tension. What’s the next question the reader must answer?

Anyway, those are my tips and tricks for keeping tension in your writing. Hopefully you found them useful, or perhaps you can apply them to writing in the future.

Until next time!


If you enjoyed this article, please consider checking out my flintlock fantasy series, KNIGHTMARE ARCANIST, or my sci-fi space opera, STAR MARQUE RISING.

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