Building Tension in Stories

We’ve written about pacing before and specifically pacing with multiple POV books, but today we wanted to talk about something a little different though it goes in hand with pacing: tension.

This post is cowritten with Ashley Burdin

What is tension anyway?

There’s an interview between Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock that we love where they discuss suspense in storytelling, and it’s one of the most succinct explanations of tension. We’re paraphrasing here but imagine there are two people having a conversation about their day over a cup of tea. And suddenly the room explodes.

Was that shocking*? Sure. Was it tense? Not particularly, no.

Let’s revisit that same scene. Someone walks into a room with a bomb set to go off in 2 minutes. They slide it under a chair and walk out of the room. Two new people enter. One of them sits in the chair right on top of the bomb and now they have that exact same conversation about their day.

Now you’re wondering what’s going to happen to these two people because you know a bomb goes off in 2 minutes. Maybe you’re wondering how they’re going to get out of the situation. Maybe you’re thinking about who put the bomb there—and why they put it there.

We didn’t change anything. The same two characters did and said the same stuff, and at the end of the 2 minutes, the room still explodes. But because you were anticipating what was coming, you started to engage with the scene.

And now we have tension.

Tension isn’t just conflict, though of course conflict can create tension. Tension also isn’t just breakneck pacing, though pacing can again, increase (or decrease) tension. Rather, tension is about stretching out certain moments—introducing an element and then delaying the resolution so that the audience has the time and space to actively engage with the story.

*I want to note that there’s definitely value in shock–for example, jump scares in horror. Our point though is that shock doesn’t automatically mean tension. The tension in horror still comes from anticipation, like knowing the characters are walking into a haunted house and that they’re likely to see very creepy ghosts there (we’ll come back to this!)

(Not) Withholding Information

One way to add tension is to reveal information to the audience—but not to the other characters.

It’s the metaphorical equivalent of having the bomb under the seat. The audience needs to know it’s there in order for it to have the desired effect. But now it’s something that’s simmering underneath every scene—something with a timer that’s going to go off at some point, that will result in dire consequences even if we don’t see those consequences for a while.

The best pieces of information to do this with are ones you know will cause conflict between the characters: one character’s plan to get in the way of another’s goal, a secret kept between two close friends, a misbelief someone has about themselves or someone else etc.

For example, let’s say character A has a sweater they love very much. In the next chapter, character B secretly borrows that sweater—but then loses it. A and B hang out… however, B doesn’t admit that the sweater is gone.

We know what happened, but A doesn’t. And now B’s secret affects every interaction the audience has with both A and B. We’re mentally thinking “Omg B has a huge secret! That’s definitely going to be an issue!”

Now let’s say B decides to finally confess—only A reveals that they got the sweater from a grandparent who passed away. So B decides to keep the secret to avoid hurting A. And now we’re going “Omg B what are you doing?? Just confess!”

This is definitely a simplification but the point is that we’re engaging with the story because we know one way or the other the secret will come out. And we know that the reveal of the secret is going to cause problems for A and B’s relationship which we’re (hopefully) super invested in!

Predictable Storytelling

Audiences come with preconceived notions about story. It’s obviously absurd to expect that your story is the first one ever that someone is consuming. And you can definitely use that to your advantage to building tension, either by leaning into genre conventions or subverting them. 

A great place to see this in action is romance, because romance by nature is all about predictability. The general story structure of pretty much every romance is the same and we pick up romance novels because they have certain tropes we love—not in spite of them.

UST (which literally has tension in its name!) comes from two characters resisting the pull between each other. That tension comes from us knowing that they will eventually end up together, and we know this because a HEA is a requirement of romance. But the fact that the characters for whatever reason are denying their connection and prolonging the inevitable builds anticipation in readers. We’re leaning into every moment: every bit of intense eye contact, every touch, every almost kiss. We can’t wait to see how they’ll resolve their internal and external conflicts and finally, finally get together! 

But another way to build tension is to do the exact opposite. Again, you use your audience’s pre-existing knowledge–but instead you find a way to twist it somehow. Let’s look at Hamilton as an example. 

Most often the question that stories ask is: what happens? We’re given a problem and we have to read or watch to find out how it’s going to be resolved. 

But sometimes, writers change the question. Hamilton literally starts by informing the audience that Hamilton is killed by Burr. Even if you knew nothing about American history, the first song lays that out clearly. But somehow we’re still transported on a really emotional journey. 

That’s because the tension comes from a different question–one the audience isn’t expecting. We learn that Burr and Hamilton are friends in the beginning, so we’re watching the show, not to find out what happens in the end but rather: how did two friends get to the point where one murders the other? 

Strategies to Create Tension

Let’s look at a few common ways writers can build tension in stories. 

One way to is by creating a character who acts in a way that creates more conflict for themselves–like Emanuela from the forthcoming BEYOND THE RUBY VEIL. The audience is shown early on that Emanula’s response to difficult situations isn’t particularly great. So every time a new conflict appears, the audience can anticipate that Emanula is going to make the situation worse somehow and all we can do is watch in horror. 

Another option is introducing obstacles the characters have to cross. Stories are almost always about a character(s) trying to achieve a goal. And if there was nothing preventing them from that goal, that would be a happy, but very boring story. Obstacles can be internal or external, and the best stories have a little of both. For example, in the movie UNCUT GEMS, the main character is struggling with both a gambling addiction (internal) and the mob he owes a lot of money to (external). Both are preventing him from achieving his goal–making a lot of money and being successful. And it makes the film incredibly tense. The character isn’t even “likeable”, but all the obstacles that are thrown his way make him a sort of underdog, and you find yourself rooting for him anyway. 

Foreshadowing also is a good way to amp up tension in a story. There’s a concept known as Chekhov’s gun, which basically means every part contributes to the whole. If you mention a gun in the first act, it should go off in the second or third. The “gun” of course doesn’t have to be a literal gun–it’s just any element that’s introduced early in the story that we know will come back later, leaving the audience with a feeling of dread. Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK for example, is something introduced in the beginning. And we know that one of his final hurdles in getting to the ark will be having to face that fear. 

One last strategy is to impose a time limit on the characters’ goals–two weeks to complete a heist or a bomb that explodes in exactly 4 hours. This creates a ticking clock and a sense of urgency. The closer we get to the deadline, the more tense things automatically become because the characters are running out of time and have, presumably, not achieved their goal yet. 

Most stories, of course, use a combination of all of these tactics. OCEAN’S TWELVE includes a time limit (two weeks to return the money they stole) plus obstacles (another thief going after the same thing they want and a detective on their trail) with a dash of predictability (based on genre conventions, we know a heist movie is going to end with the crew successfully outsmarting those trying to stop them). The tension here comes from us knowing where things are going to go poorly (Rusty’s secret past with the detective, for example) and being invested in the characters (many of whom are underdogs) enough to want to discover how they’re going to pull off another impossible heist. 

The key though, is that we need to know exactly why achieving a goal matters to the characters, otherwise we’re just adding complications, not tension. The reader can only actively participate if they know what’s at stake for the character if they fail. We can anticipate what’s coming–and why it’s going to result in dire consequences–and therefore, we’re invested in watching the story play out. 

What are your favorite ways of adding tension to a story? 

3 thoughts on “Building Tension in Stories

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s