Ramping Up Tension

By: Ken Brown
Published: 11/14/2020

Can You Increase Tension in Your Story?

Today, I'm returning to the topic of writing tension into your stories. Why add tension? I'm writing (pick your genre which you don't think needs tension) and say, "I don't need tension." I disagree.

Why Add Tension

Readers like it when they can't put a book down. We've all read those stories, you're turning the pages, physically or virtually, and you tell yourself, when I finish this chapter I will:

  • Make breakfast
  • Take a shower
  • Go to the bathroom
  • Tuck the children into bed
  • Go to bed
  • Go to work
You can put your own spin on the what you'll do when you put the book down, but we know you don't stop reading at the end of the chapter, because the tension is high and you have to relieve the tension you're feeling before you stop reading. That might take more than one chapter and you know it.

No Matter What Genre You Write, Why You Need Tension

Like I've said before, I read a lot of the Lee Child, Jack Reacher, series. Lee Child is excellent at raising tension and keeping it high throughout the novel. You might say, yeah, but he writes thrillers and I write romance. Romance doesn't need tension. I disagree. A friend in my writer's group writes romance and she's an excellent writer, but her stories are missing that tension. She starts out great, with a plot that could guarantee tension, but she releases the tension too soon.

Imagine your POV character meets a handsome man. They talk, maybe have dinner, there's a disagreement, or he makes an off-putting statement and the POV gets upset and they part. My friend likes for there to be a happy get back together quick either before the chapter ends or definitely by the end of the next chapter. I recommend she not re-connect the two so quickly. Make them stew. Let's find out what he's thinking about the argument. Let's dig deeper into character, into the plot, or even the theme. Show us how the environment where the story takes place can disrupt your happy ending to the chapter.

Let her talk it over with her friends. They can burrow deep into the argument and then she might say, oh I over-reacted and plans to hook back up with Mr. Handsome, only to find out he's not available. She thinks he's angry and is dating someone else right away, but no he has a perfectly good and rational reason for not being available. In fact, when she first makes the next contact, he's abrupt with her and that makes her angry, too.

Depending how you lay out the story, your reader may be on Mr. Handsome's side or with the POV character's side. But you've planted seeds of doubt and now there's tension in the story and it will require a minimum of one more chapter before your reader can breathe and go to bed.

Ways to Increase Tension in a Scene

  • Don't make the scene or chapter a happy ending.
  • Wherever your scene or chapter ends, chop off the last two paragraphs. (This guarantees you have left your reader wanting more.)
  • Bring in someone the reader loves or knows and find out she's in danger, in trouble, planning to do something stupid, or also likes Mr. Handsome
  • Bring in a bad guy who plans to ruin the day for the POV character (Yes this can happen in love stories and nobody gets killed.)
  • Have your POV make a critical error when you would normally end the scene. (This requires a minimum of one chapter and sometimes five chapters to resolve.)
  • Interrupt a scene or chapter that is almost the perfect kiss scene. (You know what I'm talking about. Kids interrupt, parents interrupt, bosses interrupt, appliances break down)
When I'm writing a scene, I like to imagine five to ten ways for this scene to go wrong. It doesn't have to be someone bringing a gun into the room, characters can say the wrong thing, or a daughter mentions that Mr. Good Looking Neighbor is coming over for dinner tonight. It's your story, write it any way you want, but readers love it when you add tension to scenes and chapters. They'll laugh, and say, "I almost peed my pants because I couldn't stop reading," but they'll love you for it.

Write everyday!