The Power of Tension
Without a solid helping of tension even the most action packed scene will fall flat, and the most heart wrenching reflection will solicit a yawn.
Think about the last book that you set down and never picked up again. What was the reason it fell off the ever important “to-read” list? Was it because you didn’t understand a character’s motivation? Was it because events were just seeming to happen with no discernable reason? Was it because you were just bored?
What about a book that seemed to stall somewhere in the middle, but it picked back up and you ended up finishing it?
As readers we’ve all experienced the full range of these reader experiences, but as a reader we rarely examine the reasons for these events. I invite you to consider these stalls in the readers experience here and now.
When we receive this kind of feedback it is often indicative of a tension problem. These problems occur most often at the start or transitions of a story, basically the parts of the story where lots of setup is occurs.
While things like setup and transitions are the work of the work for storytelling no sequence should ever feel this way to the reader. A chapter of a character sitting alone in a library can be just as engrossing as a fight sequence if tension is executed well.
A One Way Ticket to Lost Tension
One of the biggest reasons for tension to fail is that the writer works so hard to hold things back. Whether it’s thought processes, plans, understandings, or recognitions — many writers expend so much effort to “not give something away”. In doing so they end up taking away all the excitement and possibility from the story. Every chapter becomes an exercise in how “not to give the twist away”.
But the truth is that something overtly hidden is not a twist, its actually a lie. This is frowned upon by readers because it’s often seen as cheating by the writer — you may have heard the terms “MacGuffin” or “Plot Armor”.
What this amounts to is that critical details are regularly getting left unsaid and not understood by the reader.
The maxim I’ve adopted to help me overcome this challenge is from fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson.
Writerly Maxim Two
“Tell the reader more than you think you need to.”
— Brandon Sanderson
Solving the Tension Challenge
Instead of seeking to hide, what we should be doing is embracing the persona of a “writerly magician”. What makes magic tricks so amazing is that we are shown all the details and components that make up the trick. We are given context and expectations that we comprehend and settle into, then all these things are combined to create a wholly unexpected result.
It’s all the details that build the tension in both a magic trick and in our stories. Without details any number of assumptions or undirected understandings settle into the reader experience and suddenly — boom, the story comes to a screeching halt.
Tension is what puts the experience of the story more firmly in the story reality. Everything that happens in a story is happening for a reason, it’s leading to a larger goal, and something is always threatening progress. If your story is floundering in the space of “boredom” then look to building tension for a solution. To build tension start by sharing more details about what’s happening than you think is necessary.
Consider with Your Tension Building
- What internal challenges is the character going through?
- What external challenges are haunting at the corners of their minds or will appear in the next chapters?
- What circumstantial, or learning moments exist in the current space?
If you work out some tension in a piece you’re writing and it’s on Medium, tag me! I’d love to check out what you create. Make sure to follow me for 3 More Writerly Maxims that will improve your writing.