Feeling Tense?

August 5, 2010 at 5:01 am (Character, Tension, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


We all know that tension and conflict are essential to an interesting plot, but sometimes stories just start to feel that little bit melodramatic. They take themselves so seriously and every little thing is a major drama for all the characters. Or a character enters the story – about a third of the way through – and their only real purpose seems to be that the middle of the story was getting boring and someone decided that they needed more tension to keep it moving. This can work if the problems caused by this character somehow link back into the central conflict, or it can feel like an add-in if the character comes, antagonizes people for awhile, and then when the story gets moving again, miraculously either has a change of heart or disappears.

There is virtually no end to the list of different ways you can add tension to a story. Sometimes those seemingly simplistic moments can become very tense (and not in an overly dramatic way when handled well). As a reader, these are my five favourite ways that authors introduce tension for their characters:

1.  A secret is uncovered and the character is trying to prevent the knowledge from spreading. I always like intrigues and character dilemmas. You always wonder just how far is this character going to go to keep this a secret. And when the secret is revealed, how will they react? Admittedly, as a reader I like to be in on the secret and then the fun is seeing if the other characters in the story catch on.

2.  Forced waits. I’m going to confess that I love this as a plot device because in real life this is what causes the most tension. You know what is coming, you know what you need to do, everything is progressing and then it all just stalls. You can really relate to the characters as they get frustrated and impatient and desperate to act while others use the time for further preparations and others still simply work themselves into a bundle of nerves.

3.  Rivalry. It may be a cliché but I do love rivals when they are both well established characters and their both given a fair showing. The play between the two as they try to one-up the other, while not admitting that they care what the other thinks, can make for an intriguing and interesting story and can also create some really interesting tensions between the other characters as they realise what is happening.

4.  RAS (Random Acts of Stupidity). Everybody is stupid at one point or another and when a character has clearly done something incredibly dumb, I like that to be addressed by the other characters, rather than simply ignored because it is convenient to the story. This can create really interesting group dynamics and the tension in the scene where someone confronts the character about their action can be excellently executed.

5.  Anticipation. I remember reading a book in high-school (don’t remember which one) where a girl was having her thumb chopped off (various political reasons leading up to it). But they announced this at the beginning of the chapter. Guy has hold of the girl, blade drawn. She’s crying. Then someone else comes in and there is discussion and another speech and they keep coming back to this girl who has tears streaming down her face. The whole chapter you’re wondering – are they actually going to do this? Is she going to get away or be released? If they had made me wait to the next chapter to find out I probably would have given up reading the book because essentially nothing would have happened in the chapter, but this book was brilliantly executed. Just when you couldn’t take any more and you had to know, the answer is revealed and then the chapter ended.

What are your favourite kinds of tension to read? Or to create for the writers out there.

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32 Comments

  1. Lua said,

    I agree with you Cassandra- tension is vital but it shouldn’t feel ‘forced’, it should develop naturally with the plot…
    Forced waits & RAS are my favorite tension devices! 🙂 Great list.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Definitely needs to develop naturally within the plot. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Paul said,

    Great list. I like all kinds of tension in stories, both as a reader and a writer.

  3. Alex Willging said,

    As a reader, I’d say that I enjoy the kind of tension that comes from forced waits, rivalry, and anticipation. I think anticipation by itself is a good source of tension–if done properly, of course. As a writer, I’m still figuring out what kind of tension I’m most prone to using. If I get more critical readers for my work, I’ll be sure to ask them about it.

  4. Agatha82 said,

    My fave is forced waits. You know a character has to do something and it takes a few chapters and you’re going “oh my god…is he going to go through with it?”
    RAS (loved that abbreviation by the way) is also a good one. My boy sometimes does a few of those due to his arrogance.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I think arrogance is one of the major causes of RAS’s. I really shouldn’t encourage the use of TLA’s but I just couldn’t help myself with that one.

  5. Carol Ann Hoel said,

    I have to go with anticipation as being my favorite ploy for tension, building anticipation, something that the reader wants to know badly enough to keep reading and trying to figure it out.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It is always good when you are so caught up in the story and you just have to know. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Mason Canyon said,

    Great post, very informative. Tension is something we all feel from day to day. When we read about it, it has to flow the same way. It’s can’t be force because then the story loses it’s realistic feel.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

  7. catwoods said,

    I like tension caused by conscious decisions. Like when the MC debates something and then makes the wrong choice. Had she not done XYZ, her life would be clicking along right now, but noooo, she had to turn left…

    Great post and good food for thought.

  8. Jemi Fraser said,

    I love RAS 🙂 We all do those really dumb moments – and I love when the character stays in character and pulls one of those! 🙂

  9. Lynn Rush said,

    RAS is my fav. You can go so many directions with that.
    Nice post, very helpful!! I’m reading Gena Showalter right now, and I feel like the tension is so great my head might burst sometimes. Right now, she’s really captivated my attention with her writing and tension.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It is great when the tension is so thick and you just can’t stop reading because you are so caught up with it all.

  10. writerleerobertson said,

    It’s a real art to create tension. I like No. 3 “Forced Waits.” And when tension slowly develops between two previously close characters because one or both of them is/are growing or changing.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Change is a great source of tension between characters. Thanks for the comment.

  11. Talli Roland said,

    Great pointers. I had to giggle because in the past, I have been known to introduce new characters just because the story was getting boring!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It is a great way to change the pace a bit and if done well can really help the plot get rolling again.

  12. Miss Rosemary said,

    I like numbers 2 and 3 the best

  13. Dina Santorelli said,

    Tension, next to suspense, is probably one of my most favorite things to create through writing. Thanks for the great post!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Suspense is something I should do a post on at some stage.
      Thanks for the comment.

  14. Tweets that mention Feeling Tense? « Cassandra Jade in the Realm -- Topsy.com said,

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tim Morrison & team, Steve Griffin. Steve Griffin said: 5 ways to add tension to a story ~ http://ow.ly/2ltTf from @darkened_jade #writing #amwriting […]

  15. Hart said,

    This is a great list–good stuff to keep in mind. I have a twist on the rivalry thing… when characters who SHOULD have a common bond are seeing things differently, so you are creating relationship fiction as they pursue different routes to the goal (in my Cozy I use this a fair amount, so the MC isn’t just trying to solve the murder, she is also fighting with her boyfriend and the police officer in the process) I love your thoughts though! Handy tools.

  16. Hart said,

    erm… that would be relationship FRICTION… not fiction… as it’s all fiction…

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      When will we be allowed to edit our own comments?
      I hate it when I make a typo when commenting and then I can’t fix it.

  17. Deb Salisbury said,

    I’ve tried using secrets, but I think I may give up the information too easily. I’ll go back and check.

    I love this list. Great post!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It does spoil the tension if the secret comes out a bit early, but too late and your reader might get sick of waiting.

  18. Casey Lybrand said,

    I love RAS! (Love TLA’s, too.) My characters do their share of stupid things. For one in particular, it comes from arrogance. For another, it is rashness and not being able to think through the consequences of her actions. They’re both a lot of fun, and they get into some interesting trouble.

    Related to secrets, I love it when, as a reader, I know something the characters don’t, and I get to watch them edge closer to disaster without their realizing it. (Kind of like in horror films — “Don’t open the door!”) There’s anticipation in that, as well. This is the one I’m working on in my own writing, right now — how to convey information to the reader that the POV characters don’t know, to create more tension and interest.

    Great topic, Cassandra.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, and for tweeting the link.

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