Creating Tension in Writing

One thing that can really make or break a piece of fiction (regardless of format) is the tension. It’s often is missing when something goes horribly wrong and (for me at least) it was the what was seriously wrong with the final two seasons of Game of Thrones. So, I thought I would throw together a few important things to consider in writing and building tension. A warning if you are sensitive to talking about sex, this is going to be an R-rated blog.


1. Building Anticipation

Tension in storytelling is a lot like really good sex. It’s really rare to have great sex that is just the, let’s stick it in variety. Instead, like fiction, there is teasing and touch and playing with the body (reader). You reveal just a little bit at a time, building anticipation and pleasure until your partner (reader) absolutely needs to go all in. You take your time, but you move with a kind flow and rhythm, you let things rise and then pull back, rise and then pull back and then there is a point in your story where it is, indeed time for full steam ahead and you go for it.

If you think about it, that’s what a master of storytelling does. They give you glimpses and foreshadowing of what’s to come. The set the frame of your mind and they control the narrative. This is particularly important in genres like horror. An example of really effective tension building is the film Paranormal activity.

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Sorry… but it’s been quite long enough for spoilers! If you haven’t seen the film you can always leave now and come back later…

The great thing about this film is how each night is an event that ramps up the tension a little. Virtually no scene is wasted and there is a great interplay between what the characters experiencing each night, and then reliving it through the following day. Each day the tension builds just a little, until the shit hits the fan in the last fifteen minutes of the film.

The story itself offers almost nothing unique. It’s found footage, it’s dealing with a lineage demon, and of course ultimately there is a possession. But the writer and filmmakers give you just enough in each scene to slowly and gradually ramp up the tension and the creep factor. You aren’t bludgeoned over the head with something outrageous the moment it begins. Instead in the first few minutes of the film, you wonder to yourself where this could possibly get creepy. Half-way through the film, you can feel your heart rate increase every time you get some of the bedtime footage and ultimately the payoff is great. But without the tension, this film would have been slow and boring.

2. Framing and Foreshadowing

But what about films or books that have a lot of downtime, that take a bit of world building to get to that good tension building?

Jurassic Park is an excellent example.

Head over to YouTube for a moment and watch this scene if you aren’t familiar.

The scene itself foreshadows what’s coming. The first thing you see after the credits is something rustling through the trees. Just like later when the T-rex makes it’s first deadly appearance. In this scene you see the creature watching the man walk on top of the kennel (shipping container, whatever you call it) as they try to move the Raptor into position. The key to this scene, the great foreshadowing it does, is that you have dozens of men with guns, you have a number of precautions taken to prevent the dinosaur from hurting anyone, and yet, still, ‘life finds a way’ and things go horribly wrong. Notice the kinds of camera angels, the key dialogue, the set design, lighting, and everything else. All of it creates this perfect tension where you just know something is about to go wrong.

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After this scene it takes some time to assemble the characters and get them all in the right place for the real story to begin. Mixed in there you have the science behind the story, the introduction to the wonders and beauty of the park itself and how the characters fall in love with the idea of meeting real dinosaurs. But in the back of your mind, that opening always looms, all that foreshadowing, frames your experience. And each piece of dialogue seeks to serve a contrast between wonder and terror.

If you know you are going to have a slow build, framing something big in the beginning can be a powerful way to start the tension rolling while giving the reader something to think about. Speaking of which…

3. Sustaining the Tension (Give them something to think about)

One thing that I think many films and books struggle with is sustaining tension. One way to do that is, even in moments where this is no apparent tension in place, creating tension can be successfully done by leaving unanswered questions or creating a state if disequilibrium for the characters. Did you leave a character in real serious mortal danger at the end of a chapter? Did you drop a philosophical bomb on your audience and leave them pondering it while you diverge into another character or area of the book?

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This happens a lot in books like The Light Bringer Series by Brent weeks. In moments where there won’t be tension and he has to get a character from point A to B, he often leaves off the previous chapter with some large revelation, some grand conflict, or some serious question that the character must address. This makes your reader turn that page, even if the current chapter isn’t as intense. Why? Because you’ve instilled a kind of artificial anxiety in your reader and that makes them want to know just what the hell happens.

This is actually why, despite some readers hating cliffhangers… I still use them all the time. All of my favorite books and series utilize these tools and it’s one of the reasons I love them. A good story keeps you on edge, keeps you anticipating all the time… but…

4. Never give them everything they want.

Okay, maybe not never, but if you always keep things predicable and similar, if the character always get’s out of danger, or their assumptions are confirmed, your boring the hell out of your reader and probably out of yourself writing it.

Cliffhangers don’t have to resolve in ways we might expect. You might leave your character surrounded by what they think is an enemy, but maybe they are allies in disguise? Maybe they are an enemy but they can’t recognize the main character? The point is, if you always use cliffhangers in the same way, if you foreshadow too much and make things obvious, it will kill the tension.

Tension is about keeping the reader on their toes, about giving them another reason to turn the page. But, if you use too much tension you also risk overwhelming your reader. Find the flow or rhythm, let your pages breath a little, not everything has to be constantly tense.

What are your favorite ways of building tension? What books do you think do it best? Comment and let me know.