Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Tension proves just how engaged readers can be with literature. To take words on a page and translate them into that urgent, nail-biting worry requires great writing and a true emotional engagement from the reader.
Tense scenes leave the reader both desperate to turn the page and afraid to. Tension is the most immediate form of reader engagement and one of the most visceral.
But how do you create tension? How do you build it once you have it? How can you use it effectively in a story without life and death stakes? And more important than any of that: what is tension, really?
1. Tension is stored energy
In physics, tension relies on stored energy. A tensed material is undergoing constant force, and that force has to come from somewhere.
The same is true of a tensely written scene: tension is only established through the intense influence of an outside force. A section of writing can be happy or sad on its own, but it can only be tense when it references something beyond the immediate scene.
Tension isn’t an experience of the moment, it’s a partial experience of the moment with a constant focusing of attention on what comes next. Tension depends on the idea of events beyond the section in which the reader actually feels tense.
The constant force that keeps events tense is the reader’s constant awareness of what comes next.
2. Tension isn’t about the event
One popular theory is that tension is created by dread of an event. For example a scene in which a detective sneaks around a house is tense because the reader is constantly aware that he may be caught.
This seems like a reasonable theory until you look at it a bit closer. If we spend tense scenes dreading an expected event then how come…
3. Any event can inspire tension
In Philip Ardagh’s The Fall of Fergal the story’s tension hinges on a young girl winning a spelling bee. The reader isn’t led to believe that any huge events hinge on the result, yet it’s made clear in the novel that she is deserving of, and in need of, the acknowledgement a win would bring.
The reader may spend tense passages dreading a specific event, but if that can be any event there must be another influence at work.
4. Tension is about consequence
Or to be precise: tension is about the presumed emotional impact of possible consequences. The reader may dread a certain event but only because they’re looking ahead to the consequences of that event and sampling the emotional impact it will have.Tension is about the presumed emotional impact of possible consequences.Click To Tweet
Holding the protagonist at gun point is tense because the reader can imagine how they’ll feel if the gun is fired. Tension is simply this expectation stretched out over more than one moment.
5. Imagined consequence can work even better
Paul Auster’s New York trilogy is one of the tensest reads out there, and yet the reader doesn’t know exactly what to dread from one moment to the next.
The protagonists are never threatened with death, just with an escalating sense of the uncanny. Auster cleverly makes it clear that some form of abstract ‘consequences’ are approaching, leaving the reader to invent their own worst case scenario.
Here we see tension at its most basic level. The reader doesn’t even need to know what the consequences will be, or even what event will cause them, they just need to be convinced that they’re worth dreading.
6. Tension is heightened through character
Of course consequences are most powerful when we really care about who has to deal with them. The key to increasing tension isn’t to increase the severity of the event but to increase the reader’s caring and understanding for the characters involved.
The most mundane event can inspire more tension than a life and death exchange if the reader cares enough about the characters.
Fall of Fergal’s spelling bee is tenser than many detective stories ever manage because the reader knows the protagonist’s home life and aspirations. They care deeply about the character’s emotions and so the emotional expectation of her sadness if she loses is palpable.The most mundane event can inspire more tension than a life and death exchange.Click To Tweet
7. Tension can be shared with characters…
The reader isn’t the only one who can fear foreseeable consequences. It’s a social impulse that fear increases if we’re around other people who are expressing their fear of it, and when a reader is involved with the story fictional characters can count as people.
Having characters feel tense or scared heightens the reader’s emotional expectation of what could happen and can even be used to steer them. When the character’s dread of possible consequences mixes with the reader’s the character can start suggesting things for the reader to worry about.
8. …Or not
Of course the impulse to worry on someone’s behalf is also powerful. When doom, or mild but potent discomfort, is bearing down on an unsuspecting character the tension can be almost breathtaking.
Why? Because the reader is the only one thinking ahead to the consequences, and that can make the prevention of those consequences feel like their responsibility. Of course unless you’re writing a ‘choose your own adventure’ book there’s nothing the reader can do, but that won’t stop the nail biting tension taking hold.
9. Tension must be sustained
As I said in the first point, tension only occurs when pressure is being exerted. You can’t mention a prowling murderer in chapter one and then expect the reader to remain tense all the way to chapter thirty where he appears again.
There are many ways to do it but you have to work to keep the reader feeling tense. This can be as minor as forcing the reader’s mind back to what could happen if the dreaded event comes to pass.
Fall of Fergal seldom mentions the spelling bee but is littered with examples of the deprivations and poverty the protagonists live with. When the heroine is forced to smuggle her entire family into her room because they can’t afford a second, the author is subtly reminding the reader how little she has in her life and inviting them to ponder how upsetting it would be if she lost.
10. Tension must be resolved satisfactorily
Stretch a rubber band until the rubber is taut, then let go. The rubber resolves the tension by snapping back to its original shape: the energy has to have somewhere to go.
Emotional energy is just the same, except that if you don’t provide the reader with an appropriate outlet, all the tension you’ve built will snap back as irritation.
This is why horror movies set up tense moments and then puncture them with a no-consequences jump scare: the open door and creepy footsteps turn out to be a friend.
Tension needs to be released not just negated. It can release when the dreaded event takes place, the expected emotional reaction converting to an actual emotional reaction, but what if the protagonist wins out?
A moment of relief is a satisfactory release for tension, but it’s not something the reader can feel on their own. As the writer you have to prompt it. This is easier when the reader shares their experience of tension with a character as they can share a moment of relief, but if the reader was the only one who knew a threat was coming you have to give them their own moment.
It doesn’t have to take long, in fact a sentence acknowledging that the sense of threat has passed will usually do. Just don’t carry on as if the tension never existed in the first place.
Tension is a great tool, made all the more enjoyable because it uses the reader’s intellect and awareness to further their emotional enjoyment. The more imaginative and informed a reader is the more implicitly they understand the potential consequences which are being used to create tension.10 Facts That Tell You How To Use Tension In Your StoryClick To Tweet
Trust your reader, encourage their involvement and understanding, and work with them to make the tension in your story the good kind of unbearable.
Tension works especially well in crime fiction, so if that’s your genre why not try our article How to write a crime novel worth reading? Or for advice on creating tension through pace try 5 popular misconceptions about story pacing.
What’s the tensest book you’ve ever read, or the least exciting activity that an author made nail-biting? Let me know in the comments.