Don Maass , author and literary agent, says that tension is one of the most important and misunderstood factors in fiction. Michael Halperin, novelist and Hollywood screenwriter extraordinaire, felt tension was so important that he actually included it in the title to his 2003 how-to book “Writing the Second ACT: Building Conflict and Tension in Your Film Script.” If you were to do a Google search for “writing tension,” you would have months of homework before you got to the end of the most applicable pages.
So what does all of this mean? First, let me give you my standard disclaimer: I’m just a guy who writes. Though twenty-five years behind a keyboard and a quarter million books downloaded in the last couple of years might suggest some credibility, the truth is that for every idea I have about the craft of building stories and novels, there are dozens of authors who have done exactly the opposite and have hit one or more bestseller lists. Please trust your own judgment and voice first, because ultimately that is what will earn you a place on national bookshelves. The ultimate goal for every mainstream author should be individuality that resonates with a large audience.
Merriam-Webster’s first definition of tension is: the act or action of stretching or the condition or degree of being stretched to stiffness/tautness. I think this is an apt description of tension in story. It would be the act of stretching out a plot. Hook the reader with a mystery, a crises, a fascinating detail…then stretch that point throughout the next few pages, chapters or maybe even the entire book. Piers Anthony says that the key to being a great novelist is learning to hook a reader like a fish, and then slowly but inexorably reel them in. They should be gasping for breath on the beach by the end of the book.
Let’s look at Merriam-Webster’s second definition: either of two balancing forces causing or tending to cause extension. I also like this definition as applied to story. Two balancing forces might be your antagonist and your protagonist, and the tension might be a tug of war between them. I could go on to describe how successful novels might have the antagonist winning that game right until near the end of the book when our hero comes out ahead. But we’re creeping too far from our original discussion.
Merriam Webster’s sixth definition for tension is: a device to produce a desired tension (as in a loom). Of all the definitions, this is my favorite because I think a loom is a perfect visual comparison to every story. Imagine a loom frame with threads stretching from left to right. Other threads are also stretching from top to bottom. Each thread represents a facet of your story.
Let’s say we’re writing about a poor family struggling to survive after the disappearance of the bread-winning father during the depression. In this story, one thread might be grief, another fear, another hunger. Other threads might represent different bill collectors, broken items in the house, and altercations between the children, the mother, and maybe even the equally poor neighbors. No matter what the ingredients are, all must be stretched tightly across our loom…all must have tension. What does that mean exactly? Let’s illustrate with our depression story while we use Piers’ fishing analogy. First and foremost, we must hook our reader early. We must come up with a unique opening that will intrigue our reader. Maybe something like this:
“I’ll have another!” Darrel Babcock yelled to the barkeep. He slammed his whiskey glass down on the polished wood counter to make his point.
“You’re usually the most broke feller in the place,” the balding bartender said. “So where’d you get that wad tonight?”
Darrel glanced at imaginary blood on the backs of his hands and shook his head.
“You don’t want to know, Mitch. You don’t want to know.”
So what have we done? By making our reader ask, “Where did Darrel get the money?” and, “Who did he have to hurt to do it?” we have set our first hook.
Now our job is to reel our reader further into the story. We might slowly reveal details of Darrel’s potential killing. We might introduce two thugs in the bar who pay particularly close attention to the “wad of money” comment. No matter what we do next, it’s important to remember that this early in the novel we should not give the reader a break. We need to keep on reeling them into the story until there is no turning back. What that means is we must continually, paragraph by paragraph, add more tension. How? Let’s say we devote the next scene to Darrel’s wife:
Seeing her neighbor through the kitchen curtain, Abigail Babcock wiped her eyes and opened the door a crack.
“Are they gone?” she whispered.
Widow Nelson gasped. “What did they do to you?”
Abby’s hand fluttered to cover her swelling cheek.
“I think Darrel’s in trouble!”
So what we hope to have done is set yet another hook by increasing the tension. Now our readers (notice we now have more than one J) are worried for Abby while also being reminded of the mystery surrounding Darrel’s possibly ill-gotten windfall. We have successfully pulled our readers closser to the end of our story. If we wanted to return to our second analogy, we could also say that we have now begun stretching a second thread of tension across our loom.
Next, we should scene-by-scene continue to create tension that will draw our reader further and further into our fictional world. In short, tension is simply a reason to keep reading. Of course, there are many kinds of tension: fear, loss, mystery, anticipation, dread, curiosity, and the romance writers’ favorite...sexual tension. Effective novelists use a mix of most if not all of the above. In the case of our depression story, we could and should continue to unravel the mystery of what Darrel has done, but a new type of tension might introduce shame when he leaves the bar…maybe something like this:
Darrel stumbled out into the back alley. Blurred eyes peered both ways. He knew he had to return home to Abby and the kids, but after only two steps he collapsed to his knees and cried.
Now we’ve introduced a new aspect to his mystery. Did he kill an innocent man? We could still ramp it up:
Visions of a stuffed dog falling from lifeless hands flashed across his mind.
Did he kill a child?
We can continue to play out this mystery and keep our readers enthralled, but as we switch from scene to scene we also need to introduce other types of tension. Maybe he could be attacked (violence/survival). Maybe the wife could receive an eviction notice (dread). Maybe Abigail’s parents could get wind of some malfeasance (more shame). Maybe Abby sees the Widow Nelson laughing and whispering with the thug who hit her (mystery/betrayal).
Obviously, we have endless ways to keep the reader enthralled and wanting to read onward. But what if we come to an important scene that doesn’t involve the obvious tensions of violence, mystery or new questions? Let’s say we want to have Abigail play blocks with her baby boy. Fisherman will often say the challenge to catching a big fish is to reel them in slowly, while occasionally letting them have extra line so they will get tired and won’t break free. That toy block scene might be that extra fishing line. BUT let’s remember how easy it is for a fish to get away and a reader to close a book. Wouldn’t it be best to endow those slower story moments with more tension? Maybe the toy block’s color remind Abby of the dress she had to sell to pay for groceries. Maybe the baby cries because of an ear infection, an infection Abby has no money to cure. Maybe…maybe…maybe…
If we are continually looking for moments to ramp up the tension, we will pull our readers to the very last page…where they will happily gasp for more.