How to Create Tension in Your Writing
A writer’s guide to making your audience desperate to know how your story ends.
Some of my favorite story moments are the ones that keep me on the edge of my seat, hand over my mouth as I read well past when I said I was going to stop simply because I couldn’t put the book down until I knew what was going to happen next. That feeling of constantly wanting to read “just one more page,” which leads to another, and another, until hours have passed and the need to return to real life dawns on you. These are moments of tension, a literary force that can make or break your story depending on how well it’s applied.
Creating tension is both incredibly fun and a challenging balancing act in fiction writing, so let’s break down what it takes to keep readers hooked and reading through the very last page.
What is narrative tension?
As Michelle Renee Miller of The Writing Cooperative so elegantly puts it, tension “gives your readers something to be afraid for. Not afraid of, but afraid for.” Narrative tension is the force in the story that drives readers to want to know what happens next and encourages them to keep flipping the pages. Use tension to craft nail-biting moments. It’s built in three steps:
- Anticipation. The reader knows that something is going to happen.
- Uncertainty. The reader doesn’t know what the outcome of that something is going to be.
- Investment. The reader cares about the outcome and wants to know what it will be.
Essentially, narrative tension is what you use to give your reader something to look forward to in the story and build suspense. That being said, you have to be careful when you’re building tension. Think of it like keeping tension on a guitar string; when the tension is appropriate, the music sounds good, but if you tighten the string too much, it sours the note and may even snap. Creating effective narrative tension means giving your readers the idea of a possible satisfying resolution and then following through with that satisfaction.
The difference between tension, irony, and conflict
I know that writing terms can be confusing, and I can almost hear some of you saying, “But Cat, you’ve already told us all about tension in your article on creating narrative conflict!” To that I say, let’s clear up the difference between the two terms.
- Tension comes from a single source and is built up to the reader.
- Conflict comes from two forces opposing each other and is built up internally in the story while the reader watches.
Having conflict in your story can lead to narrative tension, and raising the tension might mean introducing a new conflict, but the two are very different literary devices, so it’s important to know the difference.
On that note, let me quickly mention that irony - when one party knows an important story-relevant fact that the other doesn’t - can be a form of tension, but not all tension involves irony.
Types of tension in writing
There are many, many different kinds of tension you can use in your writing, but most kinds of tension can be broken down into these categories.
Relationship tension is narrative tension that you build by focusing on the relationship between two characters. This can come from any type of relationship - romantic, platonic, familial, adversarial - and often relies on the emotional investment of the reader, so it’s incredibly important to create solid characters when you’re using relationship tension in your story.
Let’s consider the classic “will they won’t they” trope in romantic stories. This bit of tension comes from the idea that two characters clearly like each other, but the process of getting them together is both difficult and uncertain. Consider the Twilight series; Bella and Edward clearly fall for each other in the first few chapters of the first book and spend the rest of the series trying to find a way to be together that doesn’t put either of them in moral or physical danger. The tension comes from the idea that, while they are romantically compatible, the fact that Bella is a human and Edward is a vampire puts them on staunchly opposite sides of a centuries-old social and political structure and presents real dangers for both of them (though Bella is in significantly more physical peril).
You also see this kind of tension in lots of “found family” stories. In The Mandalorian, for example, Din Djarin is tasked with transporting Grogu to Imperial Forces. As the series goes on, however, we watch him come to care for the infant, which leads audiences to wonder if he would really sacrifice this innocent child for his paycheck. Then, when Din takes Grogu and they go on the run, the audience is left wondering how far Din would go to protect Grogu and himself. The conflict changes, but remains focused on the relationship between these two characters.
Ironic tension is built into a story when your readers know something that your characters don’t, or the reverse is true (which is an interesting switch from the norm). This imbalance of information can lead to conflict and can make the resolution of a story harder to come to - you can’t actively choose to do what you need to do if you don’t know you need to do it.
For example, the opening paragraphs of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series give the reader the grim knowledge that being a demigod is a bad thing:
“Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood…Being a half-blood is dangerous. It's scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful nasty ways…if you recognize yourself in these pages - if you feel something stirring inside - stop reading immediately. You might be one of us. And once you know that, it's only a matter of time before THEY sense it too, and they'll come for you. Don't say I didn't warn you.”
How disconcerting is that? We know from the first moments of the book that being a demigod sucks and can lead to painful deaths, so when Percy starts facing monsters later in the chapter, we already know what he’s going to learn about himself and what this is going to mean for his future. But Percy is telling us the story, so he obviously lives - how? That’s what keeps us invested as the larger plot unfolds and the stakes get more and more dire.
Tension of a task
Everyone knows what it feels like to have a task looming over your head. Maybe you’ve got an essay to write for school, a report to finish for work, paperwork to do for your finances, practices and games to attend for your kiddo, or some other thing that requires some of your time and energy. When those tasks are bigger, incur more responsibility, or get delayed or set back in some way, they can cause us to feel tension; we know what needs to happen, but there’s something in the way of us getting that done or there are more people relying on us doing it correctly.
The tension of a task in a story might come from the hero having an assigned quest or trying to solve some mystery. The further into the story we get, the more roadblocks come up to stop the character from accomplishing their goals. The consequences of failure may be even worst than originally thought. This ramps up the tension, as the heroes have to struggle even harder to accomplish their goals, and readers may fear that it won’t get done at all.
Consider the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo’s task at the very beginning of the story is a serious but relatively straightforward one: destroy the One Ring by submerging it in the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor. The Fellowship is formed around him to try and help him accomplish that goal, but as they travel and get closer to Mordor, more and more obstacles get in their way - both externally, with the chasing Ring Wraiths and the growing threat of war, and internally, with Frodo’s fight against the corruption of the Ring. The readers and characters both know how important it is to get rid of the Ring, so everything that comes up to thwart this mission makes us more and more concerned and excited to see how Frodo and the Fellowship overcome it.
Sometimes the tension comes less from knowing something and more from not knowing anything at all. A change in the daily routine, the addition of a new element, or the subtraction of a familiar element can add tension to a story by throwing your characters and your readers off balance and making them question what’s going to happen next.
The first Harry Potter novel uses this to its advantage quite well; the first chapter is riddled with out-of-the-ordinary experiences for the Dursley family that set up Harry’s arrival as a major shift in their lives. Then again, with the arrival of his Hogwarts letter, comes a massive change in Harry’s life that drives us to want to know more about this brand new world he’s been exposed to. The tension created by our protagonist being thrown into an entirely unfamiliar situation - and discovering everyone there is familiar with him - makes this story interesting and readable even before the major mysteries of the book are revealed.
Tension of mysteries
Speaking of mysteries, the tension created by giving your characters a puzzle to solve is a great way to keep your audience engaged, especially if the mysteries have no easy answers to even guess at. Mysteries have the air of a question that has an answer, you just have to figure out what that answer is (this differs from surprise tension in that some surprises don’t have answers).
Pick up any mystery novel and you’ll see what I mean. In the mystery of a crime, usually a murder, our focus is less on who committed the crime - as we’re sometimes shown this on page one - and more on how our protagonist is going to figure out who committed the crime and discovering why they did it. In Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, we know that Poirot is eventually going to figure out who committed the crime, but we never know exactly how he’s going to figure it out or what the motivations are going to end up being. This is exploited in two of her biggest hits, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder On The Orient Express, where the murderers break the conventions of the genre in major plot twists revealed in the climaxes of the novels.
You can also use mystery as an underlying connection thread in any genre. For example, consider Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. While the top-level story is that of the Baudelaire orphans trying to find a new home after their parents’ deaths, the underlying mystery between all the books has more to do with our narrator, Snicket himself. Who is he? Why does he know so much about the Baudelaires, and does he know who set the fire? And who is Beatrice? These questions, though never fully answered, keep fans guessing and talking about the books even 16 years after the end of the series.
How to create tension in your writing
So, how exactly do you build tension into your tales? Here are some tips you can use.
Show us the danger
Sometimes, the best way to give us tension is to let us see what’s at stake or what the danger is that the hero is trying to avoid. You might do this by offering us a view from the villain’s perspective, showing what their plan is or how they are working to catch or kill our heroes. You can also give us background snippets that hint at what’s gone wrong - the news mentions reports of alleged zombies, the sky is heavy with dark clouds just as a character heads up a thin mountain path, the characters spot something that isn’t quite a deer, etc.
Give us a countdown
This works particularly well in thriller or action stories: give us a ticking clock for the characters to race against. This might be literal - a bomb timer, a villain’s “you have X hours or else,” a set deadline - or it might be metaphorical - how long someone has before an illness claims them, a slowly wearing down machine, a crumbling political system. You’ll also want to make sure your characters are busy with multiple tasks, have a long way to travel, or the task they have to complete is quite big.
By giving us a time limit and a heavy workload to work with, you’re making your readers wonder if the characters will be able to do everything they need to before they run out of time, and making us curious about what happens after the clock runs out.
Wrong place, wrong time
An interesting way to add tension to your story is to have a character arrive somewhere they shouldn’t be, exactly when they shouldn’t be there. Maybe the teen forgot her phone and overhears mom and dad fighting, maybe the detective can’t get out of the criminal hideout fast enough and must duck into a cupboard and stay silent as the goons return, maybe your adventurers have walked right into the dragon’s lair only to find that he hasn’t abandoned it after all.
By putting your characters in an unexpectedly dangerous or upsetting situation, you’re immediately getting your audience to question how they’re going to get out of it and what they would do if they were caught.
Tell us the ending first
This is the tension-building technique that relies on dramatic irony - a specific form of irony in which the audience knows something that the characters do not - or incomplete information. Consider giving us a flash forward - we join the hero during the climax of their big fight with the villain as they wonder where it all went wrong - a prophecy - the hero learns about their terrible fate through a long-written riddle - or by giving us a future-based narrator - the narrator explains that this is the story of how they died.
Telling us the ending - or at least part of it - at the beginning of the story makes readers wonder how you’re going to get there. It’s a great way to get your readers’ attention in an unexpected way.
Cliffhangers are sudden ends of chapters, where the dramatic tension of a scene remains unresolved. The stopping in the middle of a tense moment, readers are compelled to want to keep going to find out what happens next. We have a whole article dedicated to cliffhangers, so check it out for additional writing tips on this literary technique.
Give us time to breathe
As with everything else, tension is best used in moderation. Remember the metaphor of the guitar string I used at the beginning? If every word in your book adds to the story’s tension, eventually your string will snap and there will simply be no good way to wrap up all your plot points, subplots, and character arcs in a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t feel like an exposition dump right at the very end. Having too much tension that isn’t properly resolved can leave your readers frustrated and disappointed.
Relentless tension is also exhausting, and can lead to a loss in reader’s interest. If the main character of your story is under constant assault from the undead, it becomes hard to build up the tension higher when it’s already at a fever pitch. There’s no time for much character development while their life is in imminent danger, nor can you examine internal conflict in a way readers will believe when the main character is stranded on a roof with no obvious means of escape.
So, give your readers time to adjust when the tension ramps up. Break up your heavy, hard-hitting scenes with lighter, less intense scenes. Use these mellow moments to build your characters’ personalities, provide nuggets of backstory, address the mundane parts of the story (getting from point A to point B, normal human functions like sleeping and eating, resupplying, etc.), provide pieces of information that will be relevant later, and let your characters talk about what’s just happened to them. Once everyone’s had a few pages or a chapter to calm down, then you can dive back into the action.
Remember to resolve
Now that you’ve added all of this tension, there’s only one more thing left to do: resolve it. Let the timer run out, let the prophecy event happen, let the hero either make it out or get caught and fight his way out. Remember, tension only works if you end with a satisfying resolution that gives us the answer to all of those “what ifs” and “what happens nexts.”
Your resolution doesn’t have to answer every single question asked; in fact, it’s often better if a few points are left up to the readers’ imaginations. That being said, try to answer all of the major questions of the story - the who, what, when, where, why, and how - in a way that makes sense logically and has a solid emotional impact. You can help yourself with the resolution by writing the ending first and/or by including foreshadowing in your story.
Tension in creative writing is a great way to keep your readers engaged. It makes them think critically about the story, asks them to get into the mindsets of the characters, and, when it’s resolved properly, allows for a satisfying and exciting ending that may keep people talking long after they put the book down. The next time you sit down with your work in progress, ask yourself how you can amp up the tension to bring your readers to the edge of their seats.