How to Weave Threads of Tension Through Your Story
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Every story is a carefully woven tapestry of tensions.
And while narrative tensions can vary in both nature and magnitude, every form of tension has the power to create dissonance that’s vital to a story’s success. It’s this dissonance, the divide between a character and an object of their desire, that will keep readers turning pages, eager to see how tensions will resolve.
But not all threads of tension are created equal — and some are far too easy to snap. How can you ensure a deft hand as you weave a little necessary tension through the pages of your book? Let’s discuss a few key techniques today, writer!
Why is it important to create narrative tension?
More than anything else, tension is at the heart of a compelling story. By nature, humans are curious creatures, and it’s the narrative tensions that we as authors weave through our stories that will keep readers turning pages. Why? Because every instance of tension poses at least one question.
What choice will she make? Will he survive? Who will win the competition? Will they defeat the dark lord?
Instances of tension can vary widely, especially in their source. For instance, dissonance can occur between:
• A character and their beliefs (or spiritual & mental well-being)
• A character and their physical safety (or the safety of those they’re responsible for)
• A character and another character (or group of characters)
• A character and their goal (or desire)
Among other sources — and tension can vary by nature, as well. It can occur between lovers, friends, acquaintances, or enemies. It can result from a physical roadblock or a new rule added to the playbook. It can present an opportunity for growth or a chance to stay true to oneself. So where in the world does an author begin?
Note that at the heart of every instance of tension is a character. If readers don’t first care about the characters involved, no amount of tension in the world will encourage them to keep turning pages. They simply won’t care what happens next. So, take the time to build well-developed characters first. Your narrative tension will thank you for it.
Three key tips for creating powerful narrative tension…
The art of building tension begins by creating dissonance between a character and an object of their desire: safety, certainty, happiness, success, etc. Ensuring that tension heightens the impact of your story? Well, that’s a bit tougher. Take a look at my top three tips below:
#1: Give Weight to the tension at hand.
Not every instance of tension must bubble into conflict, but it’s more than likely to happen in most stories. And when it does, consequences will ensue. Making sure that readers know what potential consequences lie on the horizon is key because tension doesn’t work unless stakes do.
What does your character risk by taking action or speaking up? What do they risk if they don’t? If readers don’t know what lies at stake, any tension you’ve build will fail to carry weight.
It’s also important to identify the consequences your character considers (or fails to consider) before deciding how they will act. Your character’s fear of or desire for certain consequences can pressure characters to act outside of their typical nature — or to make the same old mistakes.
#2: Thread tension with emotional impact.
Tension should create dissonance within your character even if the source of tension is external. Why? Because tension that has no emotional impact on your characters won’t impact your readers either.
Internal dissonance can unveil itself in a variety of forms: anger, fear, insecurity, aggravation. No matter what your character is feeling, make sure their emotional reaction plays into their character arc as a whole — stirring up old fears, flaws, regrets, or false beliefs that will further heighten the dissonance at hand.
#3: Stir up Uncertainty in Readers.
No matter how well you’ve threaded your tension with consequence and emotional impact, it will still fail to carry weight if every prior instance has had the same result. Just think of how many times you’ve known a character in mortal peril was unlikely to actually die — or even bear a scratch!
To ensure that tension results in page-turning curiosity, work to build uncertainty in readers.
This doesn’t mean forcing your characters to act in ways that aren’t true to their nature. In fact, this is another area in which your character’s fears, flaws, regrets, and false beliefs — or even their simple lack of knowledge or experience — can come into play.
If readers are inside your character’s head, they’re likely anticipating the same consequences your character fears or desires. By flipping your characters’ expectations on their head from time to time, you’ll ensure your readers never quite know what to expect from the narrative tension at hand, making it all the more nail-biting.
And so tension begins with the dissonance between a character and an object of their desire and deepens with the application of consequence, emotional impact, and uncertainty. But how can you actually weave all of this into your story?
The importance of building tensions big and small…
We’ve talked about the various types and sources of tension, but we’ve yet to discuss how vastly instances of tension can differ in magnitude. Some threads of tension will weave through the entirety of your story:
Will she catch the killer? Will they fall in love? Will he destroy the cursed stone?
These threads of tension are often called macro-tensions, and they create the questions found at the core of your story’s plot arcs and character arcs. Make sure to check out the articles I’ve linked for more information on how to weave macro-tensions into your story.
On the other hand, instances of tension can exist for a single scene or run only for a few chapters. These threads are typically called micro-tensions and can add to the ups and downs your characters experience in their journeys:
Will she find another clue? Will he embarrass himself on the first date? Will they find a way to escape the dungeon?
Beyond the advice we’ve already discussed, the biggest key to ensuring that the tensions you build will keep readers turning pages is to keep at least one thread of tension alive at all times.
You can resolve micro-tensions if your story’s bigger threads are still very much at play. But if you resolve your story’s macro-tensions during the climactic sequence, make sure you still have a micro-tension or two to drive readers through to the very last page of your book. As a general rule, introduce a new question before you answer another.
On the whole, building tension can be a tough topic to discuss because it exists in so many shapes and sizes. It’s the hesitation before a first kiss, the dread of a setting sun in the wilderness, and the fear of admitting to yourself that you’ve done wrong. From the threat of tyranny to the muddled breaths of a child with the flu, there’s no way to condense tension into an easy box.
But no matter which types of tension you intend to weave through your story, I hope you’ve found the advice I’ve shared with you today to be helpful, writer. Here’s to encouraging our readers to keep turning pages!