Creating Tension – Part 1
Tension is an important aspect of storytelling – it helps to create nail biting moments within the story and works in tandem with suspense and atmosphere to keep the reader turning the page. It not only heightens the reader’s sense of anxiety, but it toys with their emotions – it keeps them gripped to the story.
Tension comes in different guises, but works like an elastic band – it can be stretched to make things taut and then slackened to ease things. In much the same way, writers continually stretch and slacken certain elements within the story. They create quieter, calmer scenes which are interspersed with faster paced, exciting, atmospheric or suspenseful scenes. This keeps things interesting for the reader.
There are different ways to create tension in your writing – from making use of description, characterisation, problems and obstacles, to injecting pace, emotion and conflict to create that mixed sensation of unease, pressure and friction.
One thing to do early on is create a sense of immediacy with your characters. For the reader to feel any tension with certain situations within scenes or around the characters, they need to connect with your characters first, because any tension, atmosphere and suspense that you develop will be felt through them. That’s why it’s important to have fully developed characters from the outset; the type of people the reader can become emotionally invested, because if the reader is invested in your characters, then that increases the sense of emotion in them and the situations they find themselves.
Another element that creates tension without any help is conflict. Disagreements and fights and arguments can create drama and tension. Characters will experience different conflicts, such as external conflicts - things that are out of your character’s hands, including things in the surrounding environment.
Of course, it’s not just external conflict between characters – conflict can be internal, like a character that must battle with his own thoughts. Maybe a character must face a personal dilemma or contend with a heavy choice, so whether it’s external or internal, conflict – just as in real life – causes all sorts of friction, and when this is shown in scenes, it should provide tension, which also creates emotions and reactions.
Another way to create a sense of tension is to raise the stakes for your main character. Things need to get progressively bad for them as the story unfolds and they shouldn’t get their own way all the time - they must fail at some things before they can reach their goal, so don’t make things easy for them.
What will they lose if your MC fails? What possible outcomes are there? This will increase tension. Drama should shroud your characters at every opportunity. By raising the stakes, you can increase that tension and make the reader continually ask, “What are the consequences?”
When we know what’s at stake, that’s when emotion and conflict come into play, because both these elements together can create a powerful, tense mix.
The same is true with obstacles placed in your character’s path. Complications – and possible consequences from these obstacles, create tension, because of the uncertainty of their outcomes. For example, if your character is backed into a corner with no possible escape, the tension in the scenario is, “Will he escape? What will happen next? Is he going to die?”
Then of course, something happens that enables his escape, and the tension can ease. Until the next time, and another complication. And so on. And when you’ve complicated things, escalate the problems to whip up even more tension and drama.
Don’t be afraid to toy with the reader’s emotions with uncertainty, anxiety and friction. Look at the situations you create in your scenes and emphasise conflict, emotions, problems and consequences.
Part 2 will look at the importance of description to enhance tension, pacing, twists and turns and that all important sense of fear.