Tension through forced in-activity

January 20, 2010 at 5:26 am (Tension) (, , , , , )

We often look at creating tension in stories and you think about all the possible problems a character could face and things that could just go horribly wrong all to create a scene that has escalating tension until finally we resolve something or explode.  Well, I don’t think anyone has exploded from tension yet but you get the idea.  I was wondering the other day what makes me tense in real life and I came to the conclusion that waiting is my killer.

People being rude to me is annoying but I get over it pretty quick.

People getting in the way of something I want to do is also pretty easy to either get around or get over.

catastrophic failure of a plan happens and then you make a new plan and move on.

But waiting.  Sitting and having to wait for a designated time for something to happen and then it not starting and having to wait more, that is what makes me very, very tense.  Forced inactivity.  I can’t move on and do something else because I have to wait and I can’t make what I’m waiting for happen any faster.

Some would see this as a sign that I am an impatient person.  This isn’t actually the case.  I just like my plans to run smoothly and when things are late or delayed it upsets other plans plus it forces me to do nothing.  I don’t get upset in traffic – that often.  There are exceptions, such as when a twenty minute drive becomes a three hour one due to severe traffic issues.  I would like to meet the person who doesn’t get annoyed about that.

Could this sort of tension work in a story?

Yes.  It actually works quite well.  Particularly in horror where the victims are forced to wait for the next attack.  They can’t leave, they can’t get proactive, they can’t call for help.  They are stuck just sitting and waiting and unable to do anything that is useful.  Sure they can read and they can talk and they can shuffle things around and pretend they are looking for weapons, but they know they are just killing time until someone else decides to act.

What makes you tense in real life and could you use it in a story?



  1. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    I’m just like you in that regard! I’m one of the most impatient people I know…waiting doesn’t make me happy. And you’re right…it would play in to a novel really well as far as tension is concerned.

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  2. Michelle said,

    Oh yes, NOTHING worse than the situation where you can’t take any action to change things, and have to just wait. TORTURE.

    As for other stressful situations that work well in novels . . . um, vehicular fires. I had the weirdest, most random vehicle-catching-on-fire-due-to-shoddy-wiring experience in December, and it was a perfect moment to fit in to my novel! Am I glad my car caught fire? No. But it all worked out rather well . . .

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I do like that about writing. Even when horrible things happen, at least they give you some interesting material.

  3. Carol J. Garvin said,

    What makes me tense and what creates tension in my writing doesn’t always seem to be the same thing, probably because my characters don’t all have my personality. Foreshadowing that makes the reader wait to see the result of something that the character doesn’t know is going to happen might be another way to provide some tension.

  4. avidgoldfield said,

    Stress, bad economy or conflicts make me tense. Sure it can be intertwined in a story and in my opinion it enriches the story. Without it the story becomes flat and so does the characters. But that’s just my opinion of course.

  5. Carol Kilgore said,

    Like you, waiting makes me crazy. I think one of the reasons is because the situation is one I have no control over. And in turn it takes control of myself away from me. I’m pretty much a control freak about myself. But only myself.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I’m with you inbeing a control freak. That’s why I like writing – it lets me be in control of everything within the story.

  6. barbaraannwright said,

    I also hate waiting, especially at hospitals, but what makes me really tense is having to perform normally in a stressful environment. Couple that with the waiting, like a character in a battlefield encampment who is waiting for attack, but must carry out normal duties at the same time as if an attack is NOT imminent; I think that character would be extremely tense.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      That does sound like a very tense situation. Having to go through the motions as if nothing were wrong all the while waiting… Sounds like a great idea.

  7. Jemi Fraser said,

    Yup – waiting gets me too.

    Rudeness too. Cruelty of course, and plain old meanness.

    I’m pretty mild mannered almost all of the time, but those can trigger my ugly side 🙂

  8. Jonathan Danz said,

    Unresolved issues where I have to…wait. When I cannot confront the issue and take measures to resolve it, I worry that issue to the brink of death. Of course it won’t die because it is still unresolved!
    Also, watching something unfold before me that about which I can do nothing.
    Alright, so maybe it’s being powerless to affect a situation. I’ll stick with that. That should make for some pretty good tension in just about any story. I’ve got to go use that in my story right now. lest it linger and torment me.
    Thanks for the post!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Being powerless does raise tension levels pretty quickly – particularly when you really, really want to affect the outcome. Thanks for the comment.

  9. rahmama said,

    Great discussion! I love these ideas, especially being powerless to affect a situation. That would create tension in a story. Also, having to behave normally in an abnormal situation.

    I’ve also come to view annoying real life episodes as writing fodder. Even if I never end up using them, it can transform those situations into being downright interesting!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      If you think about using something in a story it can make most things a bit more interesting.

  10. jmartinlibrarian said,

    Uncertainty–the great unknown–is my hot button. Maybe it stems from being a control freak, but I want to know what’s waiting around the corner. I guess I should break each chapter right before that “turning the corner” moment.

  11. Corra McFeydon said,

    Oh, my goodness. Waiting is absolutely what makes me tense. And yes – it could work in a novel.

    (My computer keeps stalling today when I try to open a post. IMPATIENT!!)

    ~ Corra 🙂

    from the desk of a writer

  12. Carol Benedict said,

    Like many of the others here, I’m most tense in situations where I have no control. I’m getting better about waiting, I think, but I use the waiting period to try and figure out what to do next.

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