Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Tension. It’s what keeps a reader reading. If there is no tension in a story, then it becomes just another walk in the park. It’s nice, but nobody wants to sit and listen to you talk about it for four hours.

So how do you create a walk people will be interested in?

Imagine a rumbling volcano.
A crazed gunman in a busy shopping mall.
A town banning a book.

You might think all of them would be great for creating tension in a story. But it’s not the problem that creates the tension. It’s the human element. Without that, your rumbling volcano is just a bit of excitement.

Now imagine John. He lives in the valley below the mountain. John is a paraplegic who can’t get himself out of bed. John’s wife just ran into town to pick up a few things. Now the volcano rumbles.

Tiffany is shopping in the mall with Mom. She nags mom to let her hang out in the pet store while Mom browses books across the way. Mom lets her go. Now the crazed gunman enters the mall. Right between the pet shop and the book store.

Mary loves her job as a librarian. Mary also loves freedom. Now the town tells her to take a certain book off the library shelf.

In all three scenarios, the question the reader now asks themselves is, ‘What will happen next?” That is tension. The need to know what will happen next.

Will John’s wife save him in time, or will he get himself out of his predicament?

Will the gunman kill Tiffany or her mom, or both, or will they be able to save themselves and each other?

Will Mary comply with the town in order to keep her job, or will she refuse to remove the book and risk losing her job?

Now technically, tension isn’t the need to know what happens next. It’s the opposition of forces, which is also in each scenario. But in order to make that opposition work, the reader has to care. Asking, ‘What will happen next?’ is a sign that she does. Having an opposition of forces that doesn’t create that question in a reader means all you have is an opposition of forces. You haven’t created tension.

An easy way to create tension is to give your characters what they want. But you do have to be a little sadistic about it. Getting what they want should create a problem. So if we go one step further back in each of our scenarios . . . .

John hated being coddled all the time. He wanted his wife to leave him alone. He wanted to prove that he’d be fine on his own for an hour or two. So she left him.

Tiffany is thirteen, big enough to wait in the pet store while mom browses books. She doesn’t need a constant babysitter. Mom lets her go.

Mary loves her job. Mary loves freedom. We gave her both. She has to choose one.

Just remember that tension for tension’s sake, won’t work in the long run. Whatever happens in your story has to be relevant to the overall plot or it doesn’t belong there, no matter how cool an idea it is.

volcano J. D. Griggs click effusive eruption


Mur said...

Fabulous! Tension is always the first thing I listen for when someone reads a new manuscript. It is, after all, the story's "raison d'etre."

Sally said...


super explanation and really valuable addition to the "toolbox" - thanks!