Monday, January 30, 2012

How to Create Tension

Don't forget, the Critique My Blog Blogfest is coming up! You can sign up here.
As I revise Sacred Fire, I’m putting a lot of focus into creating narrative tension. What will make people have to finish it, to stay up late to find out what happens next? A writer should be able to look at any page in a novel and say why a reader will want to keep reading.

Some books make me want to know more so desperately, it’s agonizing. Why? I thought back on some of the books that made me feel an uncontrollable urge to know more, and there are two things they all had in common:


The best example I can think of was the tv show “Lost.” Every episode presented a new question. Why are there polar bears on a tropical island? Who is the guy living with them that wasn’t in the plane crash? You want to watch the next episode because you have to know. If an episode started out with “Polar bears escaped from a science lab on the island, which is now abandoned,” you would say, “Okay, cool.” You wouldn’t feel compelled to watch more.


The plots that make me the most eager to continue involve choices. I’ll spend the entire book urging the character to make the right decision. Often it’s for a character to confess her love to a guy who clearly loves her back. I’ll never forget how Jane Eyre almost killed me. Mr. Rochester wouldn’t tell Jane he loved her, and he made her (and me) suffer for a hundred pages! I couldn’t stop reading until I knew whether or not he would chose to be with her.

The Hunger Games is an excellent example of choice. In almost every chapter, Katniss has a choice she has to make, and I can’t stop reading until I know what she’ll decide. Will she volunteer to play the games to save her sister? Will she trust Peeta? Will Peeta protect her, or kill her? When she’s trapped in a tree with five people at the bottom ready to attack her, how will she get out of it?

There are some story elements authors think will drive a novel, but they only contribute to the story. Without questions and choices, the narrative tension will not be compelling enough.

In the next post, I'll talk about the ways authors try to add tension but don't succeed.


  1. You make some excellent points and use great suggestions to drive home the points. Thank you so much for this. Will be really helpful.

  2. Love the examples. I'm looking forward to the next post.

  3. Great examples of how to drive up the tension! One thing that helped me a lot was the action/reaction format.

    Basically, each chapter (or scene) in your novel can either be written as an action scene (which means it includes a goal, a conflict, and a disaster-- or not a disaster, but the character doesn't get what they want, or more questions/conflicts are introduced).

    The action scene is then followed by a reaction scene (includes an emotional reaction to the action scene, a dilemma, and a decision). The decision then leads to more action, which is another action scene...

    Anyway, I tried to use this in my most recent novel and it helped a TON with creating more tension. I think your examples of questions and choices fall into that really well.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. One more time, with edits....

    Shallee, that's a technique known as "scene and sequel" or Motivation Reaction units. Dwight Swain writes about this in his TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. It can be very effective for pushing a story forward. Jodi Henley writes about something similar as Goal, Motivation, Conflict on her blog here:

    I love this sort of geeky plotting stuff, as you can probably tell!

  6. My husband would watch the Polar Bears movie; in fact, take out those two words and substitute anything else and he would still watch or read it.

    I agree with you about the need to have choices for the characters to make, the tension that develops subsequently.

  7. Posts like these are really good, even if they tell you what you already know because they REMIND you, in my case, as you write (And yes, I'm procrastinating checking up on my blog reader : ) )

    This was a nice point: If an episode started out with “Polar bears escaped from a science lab on the island, which is now abandoned,” you would say, “Okay, cool.” You wouldn’t feel compelled to watch more. Because the writer in me went 'not unless we see them padding towards a tent with a mother and baby in it


I love hearing from my readers!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...