Tension: The Story’s Warp Drive

Tension: The Story’s Warp Drive

Your story could transport readers to strange new worlds, but without tension in the right measure, it’s sure to be an unmanned mission. Tension is the warp drive that pulls a reader along the course you’ve set; it’s what keeps a reader (wait for it …) engaged. So how do you use tension to keep a reader on the edge of their seat rather than on the verge of sleep? Below are 10 ideas to kick-start a scene that’s missing a certain bite.
Pulled in all directions
Before  we can talk about adding in tension, there’s a big question to consider. How much tension do you need? And when? It depends on where you are in the story and whether it’s long or short. In general, tension must rise and then fall, but the exact course varies – you may want to release tension along the way so you can build it up again quickly near the climax. The charts below show what your story might look like if plotting tension over the course of the story.
Tension graph - Novel
Tension graph - Short Story

Tension graph - Sim rising Tension graph - Sim falling

Building and Releasing Tension
Knowing how much tension you need is moot if you can’t control it. When your writing needs a quick jolt or feels overwrought, try one of these methods adjust the tension up or down:

  1. Characterization: Without relatable characters, it’s difficult to get readers invested enough for anything else to work. Sorry, this isn’t a “quick fix,” but it’s what you need to get readers invested in the story. Start here.
  2. Secrets: A character keeping a secret builds tension, especially if the audience knows they’re keeping one but doesn’t know what it is. Uncovering the secret releases that tension, as long as it was a good secret! The DaVinci Code is filled with secrets kept from one another and from the audience. The uncertainty the reader feels toward them pulls them through to the last pages.
  3. Danger: Putting a character in physical, social, or emotional peril gives readers a reason to keep going. The greater the danger, the more tension in the scene. North By Northwest’s scene on top of Mount Rushmore wouldn’t pack the same punch if it happened on flat ground.
  4. Twists: Plot twists can keep readers fully engaged, but only if they can believe the twist. If it doesn’t seem plausible, it doesn’t work.
  5. Reveals: Allowing the audience a quick, incomplete peek at a mystery pulls them along. A memorable example is glimpsing the back of Darth Vader’s unmasked head. Letting the audience see the whole thing can release that tension.
  6. Humor: If you want to release a bit of tension, a quick joke or a play on words is a great way to do it.
  7. Time: Just like in real life, a clock ticking toward a deadline builds tension. In Apollo 13, the astronauts have to lower the cabin’s CO2 level within a short, known time frame, or they’ll die. That’s a great use of time and danger to raise the tension felt by the audience.
  8. Delay: If we can see an inevitable, dramatic event coming from a long way off, and it gets slowly closer and closer, it builds anticipation of what will eventually happen. If there’s a near miss, it has an even bigger effect. The film Titanic uses this effect well. The audience knows from the start that the ship will sink (spoiler alert!), which leaves them anxiously awaiting the event.
  9. The Unexpected: Bumping into something the characters didn’t expect can jumpstart the audience’s curiosity. This can be figurative, but it can sometimes be literal. Every time Indiana Jones and his companions suddenly discover the victim of a booby trap, we realize that they could be next.
  10. Language: Your sentence structure and word choice affect your readers’ reaction to the story. As the climax approaches, try using shorter, simpler sentences. Readers will feel like the action is speeding up and a dramatic turning point is just ahead.

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