How to Rock Your Story's Tension
Today we're talkin' tension.
No matter your story's plot or genre, you need to know how to nail tension in your writing. Why? For starters, tension should occur every time your hero and villain (or antagonistic force) come in contact–and trust me, that needs to happen in your story.
Without a hero, your readers have no one to root for, meaning they won't feel a connection to your story. And without a villain or some sort of antagonistic force, your hero with have no opposition, and thus your story will have no plot.
But the conflict between your hero and villain isn't the only type of tension your story can have. You see, tension is all about two opposing forces creating strain. That means that tension can occur between almost anyone in your story, no matter their moral position.
Whatever the case, tension is vital to your story's success. Where there's strain, there's powerful potential for a killer plot, but only you can make that potential a reality.
You need your story's tension to be realistic and fascinating if you plan on writing a novel that readers will love. Anything less thrilling and your story will fall flat. Luckily, there are plenty of different ways to spice up your story with tension, and I have written tips for each type.
So without further ado, let's get started!
Tension in Plot
Let's start with the basics. Here are five simple ways to create tension in any plot:
1. Increase the intensity of your plot points. Most novels feature a plot structure similar to the Fichtean Curve, meaning that several plot points in the rising action lead towards a climactic moment.
When you're planning out your story, keep the idea of a rising action in mind. Your first plot point should be the least suspenseful, with each of the following plot points increasing in drama until the biggest moment of your story: the climax. Follow this basic structure and you'll create tension that lasts for the duration of your story.
2. Use macro- and micro- tensions. Macro-tension is what we talked about above: those major strains in your story that occur at plot points. Most authors naturally work in macro-tensions as they write since there really would be no story without them.
It's the micro-tensions that many authors forget about, which means that stories with micro-tension truly do stand out from the crowd.
Micro-tensions are the smaller strains that occur throughout the narrative. Every time your character doubts himself, is forced to choose between two paths, or has conflicted feelings, you are creating micro-tensions. You can also create micro-tensions between your hero and their mentors and sidekicks.
These types of strain give your story realism and depth, so don't forget to include them in your novel. Cool?
3. Create a plot-long tension. Your hero will face many strains both big and small throughout their journey, but there should always be one strand of tension that lasts all the way through to the climax. This will probably be the unresolved tension between your hero and villain, so it needs to be epic.
To create maximum impact, establish the strain within the first few chapters of your novel and keep it alive and well until the climax occurs and one of them achieves their story goal.
4. Leave open ends. Never wrap up all of your threads of tensions at the height of your story. The macro-tension can be resolved at the climax, but at least some of the micro-tensions should last through to the very end. That's the key to keeping your plot interesting throughout the entire book, meaning that readers will keep turning those pages all the way to the very last page.
5. Never let your characters get comfortable. There should never be a moment before the very end of your story where your characters are without tension. Tension is conflict and conflict is your plot. If everything is happy-cheery, even for a little while, your readers will grow bored!
Keep at least one ongoing tension prevalent in your characters' minds at all times, and they (and in turn, your readers) will never feel completely at ease–and that is what will keep your plot fresh and exciting.
Tension Between the Hero and the Villain
Like I said earlier, tension between your hero and your villain isn't the only type of tension. However, it should be your number one concern since creating an interesting plot is the key to keeping your readers reading.
So let's hop to it! Here are three tips for writing excellent enemies:
1. Start the tension early. As I mentioned above, the tension between your hero and the villain needs to be laid out early in the story. Within the first several chapters, make clear exactly what your hero wants, what your villain wants, and why the two stand in one another's path to success.
2. Create opposing motivations. If your hero and your villain want the same thing, you can create tension by giving them opposing motivations. Make it clear to your readers why each character wants the same goal for different reasons by making the motivations as opposite as possible. This way, readers will be able to identify who to root for in the fight for success.
3. Make your hero and your villain fighters. You need an intelligent villain and a strong hero if you want to create some serious tension. Your villain should be so cunning or powerful that they are downright terrifying, making your readers worry that the hero won't be able to overcome them.
On the other hand, your hero should be so passionate about defeating the villain or achieving their goal that their strength gives readers hope that they might just succeed after all.
Tension Between the Hero & the Sidekick
Sometimes, your hero will get into struggles with those they love. Having this tension between the hero and their sidekicks or mentors is actually a major benefit to your story; it shows that your hero isn't 100% perfect, which of course makes things extra intriguing!
So here are four ways to create tension between your hero and those they love:
1. Have the hero screw up. No one is perfect. Give your hero a human moment by having them mess up big time. Your sidekick should be bright enough to know that your hero has done wrong and that their actions have serious consequences. So make them call out your hero on their crap!
You can up the tension even further by forcing the two into a vulnerable situation, such as an argument, an apology, or a emotional breakdown.
2. Give them a lack of communication. Your hero and your sidekick are probably working together to defeat the villain and/or achieve the hero's goal. In that case, if one isn't communicating as much as they need to be, they may accidentally go in different directions or work against one another.
Obviously, that's a major issue that will cause some serious tension–tension that readers will absolutely eat up!
3. Give one a secret. No matter how close two people are, their trust can easily be shattered. If your hero or your sidekick is keeping a secret, tensions will mount if the other finds out. Not only will they feel confused and betrayed, but an argument is bound to happen.
And you probably know from personal experience just how tense arguments can be!
4. Make someone act in a way they don't agree with. Your hero and your sidekick probably have a close relationship or are building one throughout their journey. When two people are that close, they will do almost anything to keep one another safe, even things that they don't feel comfortable doing.
When someone is forced into a situation where they must act in opposition to their morals, no matter how much they love their friend, there will be tension.
Tension Between Lovers
Whether it be love or lust, this list would be incomplete if we didn't talk about sexual tension.
Now don't start blushing on me! Sexual tension isn't just for romance novels. Some sexual tension doesn't even result in any intimate interaction. Nevertheless, it is common in everyday life, so it should probably find its way into your story in some shape or form.
Here are five tips to help you write it realistically:
1. Follow the 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy. Things don't just move from eye contact to the promiscuous. There is a natural flow of physical intimacy between two people, and thankfully it's been plotted out clearly in 12 stages for all of us weary writers.
2. Be specific and work towards vague. Unless you're writing erotica, you want to keep sex scenes relatively vague so your story will still appeal to the masses.
In order to create that realistic connection between your characters while still attracting readers, keep the early stages of intimacy detailed. As the characters get more intimate, your descriptions can become more vague.
3. Play with personalities. In the most basic of forms, there are two types of attracted personalities: Kindred Spirits and Opposites Attract.
Kindred Spirits find in one another...well, a kindred spirit. Their personalities are relatively similar and they are delighted to finally find someone who understands them. On the other hand, Opposites Attract are...well, opposites that attract. They have opposing personalities and are delighted to find someone new and exciting to challenge them.
Both of these types of attraction play a role in sexual tension. Kindred Spirits tend to be introverted people. Even though they understand one another well, they may be too shy to state their desires. On the other hand, Opposites Attract are usually extroverted. Their opposing personalities will eventually clash and neither will be afraid to let the other person know it.
4. Put up roadblocks. Like I mentioned in the Tension in Plot section, you should never let your characters get comfortable–meaning there should always be a roadblock in your lovers' path.
Whether it be physical distance, social distance, personality differences, or even fear of rejection, make your readers wonder if your lovers will ever get together or be able to attain and maintain a healthy relationship.
5. Create a climactic moment. No pun intended.
Just like your plot should have a climax, the tension between your lovers needs one, too. In fact, their entire relationship should be treated as a mini-plot of its own with several plot points appearing in a rising action. Just before the lovers finally get together, create the ultimate tension by making it seem as though they never will.
Not really sure why that's important? Just think of all those romantic movies.
Just when the couple is about to kiss, one says goodnight and leaves the other standing in the doorway. You think all hope is lost as the one character heads inside. Then, there comes a knock at the door and voila! You finally get the kiss you've been waiting for. Cheesy, but exhilarating!
Apply a similar technique to your couple's climactic moment and you'll create a relationship to remember.
Tips for Writing Tension in Your Story
So far, we've discussed plenty of tips for planning out different types of tension, but I haven't yet told you how you can actually write those tense moments with success. Here are a few tips to help you nail down all of your story's macro- and micro-tensions:
1. Keep a consistent pace. When it comes to macro-tension, the easiest way to make sure your story is a page-turner is to keep a consistent pace. I wrote about your novel pacing in detail in a previous post, but let's do a quick review:
It's not the speed of your pacing that matters so much as your consistency. Keep your macro-tension plot points at regular intervals, and you'll keep your readers hooked. A steady rhythm helps readers settle into the flow of a story, so if your tensions are too sporadic, your story will end up seeming choppy and ill-planned.
2. Be vivid. I know I talk about "show, don't tell" all the time, but that's because it truly is a time-tested technique.
Instead of telling your readers that a tension exists, show them in your characters' body language, actions, and dialogue. Be vivid in your descriptions by using the five senses and try out Deep POV if you really want your readers to get into the mind of your character.
3. Let personalities shine through. Your characters are the key to successful tension. They don't create your strain; they are your strain. That means that you have to nail down your characters' personalities if you want to create tension that rings true. Because without strong, consistent personalities, your tension will lack the realistic motivations it needs to be a success.
4. Amplify the opposites. The very definition of tension is a strained state resulting from two forces in stark opposition. That being said, the more you can amplify the opposites in your novel, the more tense it will read.
That's not to say that everything must be black and white. Grey characters and situations add a level of realism that your story needs. However, creating a few intense opposites can indeed make your novel memorable.
You may choose to put a horrible scene in a sunny setting or to surround a happy character with a negative crowd. For a more pre-dominant option, give two characters strong, opposing personalities. Whatever the case, look for ways to add opposites that will catch your readers off guard.
They're expecting standard, so wow them with the unique!
Since every story features some form of tension, executing your story's tension impressively is a sure way to make it memorable. So don't be afraid to try out new ideas, even if they seem a bit crazy. Stand up and stand out. If one of your tense moments doesn't ring true, you can always edit it out later.
Do you have any other tips for writing these types of tensions? Have I forgotten a certain type that you'd like me to cover? Join in the conversation in the comments below!
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