Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Crank up the Tension

by Dina Sleiman

Before I start today's regular fiction post, I'd like to send out heart felt condolences from all the Inkies to the Welborn family on the passing of Gina's mother-in-law yesterday. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

And now back to tension. Almost any writing expert will tell you that one of the most important elements of fiction is tension. But in usual Dina fashion, I had issues with this. I don’t like tension. It’s, well—tense! Stressful. Upsetting. I grew up in a think positive, look on the bright side kind of home. I didn’t get the need for all this tension in my stories. If I wanted tension in my life, I could have been a lawyer, and I could be making hundreds of thousands of dollars right now instead of a pittance as a writer.

Then one day, I finally got it. The tension is the reason the reader keeps turning the page. Without the tension, they have no need to know what’s going to happen next. You mean my stunning imagery and characterization aren’t enough to keep them reading? Uh, duh, no they're not. Not against the screaming demands of everyday life. Readers need a darn good reason to keep them from putting that book down. In other words, when we say you need more tension, what we’re really saying is that you need to make your reader care more.

Oh! I can do that.

So I learned how to crank up that tension baby. And really, it was there all along, I just wasn’t bringing enough notice to it. You needed a minor in psychology to find my tension.

Here are a few tips for cranking up the tension in your story. (I know a lot of people say ratchet up, but that sounds like tools, which make me even more tense.)

1)      Make the goal and obstacles crystal clear. I know as writers our big mantra is show don’t tell. And I think that’s what I used to do concerning goal and motivation. I would have Dandelion the peasant girl smelling meat wafting from the castle and brushing her fingers along the stone wall, and you were supposed to know that she longed for that life and would do anything to attain it. Maybe in literary fiction that would work. But generally speaking, it’s an author’s job to make it clear through dialogue or internal monologue what the character wants, why they want it, and what’s keeping them from getting it. This is how we let our reader know what they should care about enough to keep reading that book. Some authors will go as far as to reiterate this every scene. To me, that’s overkill. But do give your readers reminders throughout. Preferably worded in new ways and reflecting the growth of the character as the story progresses.

2)      Make us care about the stakes. In order to keep the reader interested, something has to be at stake. Not only does the character need a goal and an obstacle to reaching that goal, but something bad has to happen if they don’t reach it. Again, this helps our reader care and become invested in the story. And truthfully, the stakes don’t have to be huge. They can be life or death in a suspense or an adventure book. But maybe the stake is as simple as the heroine being lonely or unfulfilled or never living out her dream. In a comedy, the stakes could be completely ridiculous. Think Seinfeld and the soup Nazi. Who cares! Except that we did care. The characters cared. In their minds it was life or death, and we loved the characters, so we cared too.

3)      Let us know what the character is worrying about. Now here’s another place I used to make a big mistake in my writing. I was never allowed to worry or complain growing up. I was supposed to stay in faith, and if I did worry, I kept it to myself. At some point I realized my characters made the same mistake. You don’t want your character to be whiny and bringing up their problems over and over again in dialogue. Maybe they don’t even want to admit it to themselves. But at some point, they need to. Because your readers need to know what they’re worrying about so they can worry along with them, and again, so they can care. If you character isn’t fazed by their own problems, why would the reader be? And why would they turn to the next page if your character is doing just fine, thank you very much.

4)      Let us feel the character's emotions. Related to letting the reader know what the character is worried about, you need to let them actually feel what the character is sensing in a visceral sort of way. You need to let them experience the character’s emotions first hand as though they are living the story in a sort of fictional dream world. Is your character angry? What does that feel like in the body? Heat? Pressure? Head about to explode? If they’re sad or in pain, how can you as the author express that to allow your reader to enter the scene and loose themselves in it?

5)      End each scene with tension. I’m sure not every author will agree with this, but I’ve found it to be a very simple trick that really works. In other words, end each scene with a hook to remind us what we’re wondering or worrying about, and why we simply can’t put the book down. Often scenes end in a tense place naturally, but other scenes are resolutions to smaller complications in the book and end on a light or happy note. When I finish a scene, I look to see if there’s any good tension on the last page. If there’s not, I add some in the ending hook. For example, we just had a wonderful kissing scene and things are going great, and I end it with, “but how long could the illusion last.” Ta da! It’s a romance novel. There’s 150 pages to go. The reader knows something's got to go wrong, but without the reminder, they might just lose interest.

So those are my techniques for cranking up the tension. Authors, what tricks do you use to keep your reader's interest? Readers, what makes you really care about a book? What makes it impossible to put a book down?

Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. She was the Overall Winner in the 2009 Touched by Love contest for unpublished authors. Her first novel, Dance of the Dandelion with Whitefire Publishing has just released. She has recently become an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire as well. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at


  1. Maybe we like tension in our stories because it's happening to someone else and not us.

    When you played with dolls, did Ken and Barbie have a perfect life or did Barbie occasionally say, "Oh no, my little sister just crashed my pink Barbie 'vette' What are we going to do?"

    Or "What do you mean, you are leaving me for G.I.Joe?"

    No? I didn't either but that's because I didn't have a Barbie vette :).
    But my baby dolls were always hungry because we were poor and didn't have food and...they didn't always get along...

    I can see where this all led. It's all starting to make sense.

    Give your characters trouble but give them a way out. Two ways out. Two awful ways out. I guess we've all had to squirm and we want to know how someone else reacts and cheer them on as they do it.

  2. Now I know why I never played dolls and thought they were boring ;) If I did I usually did fashion shows or Barbie house redecorating parties. There was no tension in my play.

  3. Lol on the Barbie scenarios.

    I totally agree, Dina. Tension is where it's at when we're reading. And like Deb suggested with the Barbie dolls, I think it goes way back to childhood. Even if we go back to the most basic of nursery rhymes, there's tension.

    I don't know if it's because I've read so many books in my life, but I get bored now if the tension isn't high. I like knowing there's no way out for the characters. That they have to go through something truly awful. I like it when the author doesn't take the easy way out and let's the heroine suffer instead of having the hero ride in at the last minute and save the heroine from experiencing any pain.

    Great post, Dina.

  4. Suzie, one of the best compliments i received on Dandelion was from my dad, who claims he's read "a" book before, by the way.

    He said he really wanted Dandelion to end up with so and so (won't say his name) but he just knew it could never happen. Then when she finally did, he cried. LOL.

  5. Excellent, Dina.

    I don't have problems with tension... I just have problems showing it. Heh!

    I'm copying these and keeping them close. I appreciate the post so much.

    Thank you. :)

  6. I hope they'll be helpful, Anita! If you remember, Gina asked me to share what I learned about this a while back behind the scenes.

  7. hello ladies...i always learn so much from reading 'behind the scenes' from my favourite authors :)

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  8. Excellent post!

    I generally try to figure out what would be the worst thing that could happen to my characters (apart from utter annihilation) and then do that to them.

    For example, I have a character who loses his first wife tragically. Then, after finally marrying and learning to love again (and getting past the guilt he feels because he loves again), he gets news that his first wife isn't actually dead.

    It's the worst thing that could happen to him. Now he feels like he's betrayed both of the women he desperately loves. And what in the world does he do now?

    As they say, get your character up a tree, throw rocks at him and THEN get him down.

    Works every time. ;)

  9. Oh my, I don't know if I could be that rough on my characters. LOL. I do put Dandelion through the wringer, but even then I was told by one reviewer that her consequences weren't harsh enough for her behavior, so I guess that's different.

    My Muslim girl in my contemp has someone try to kill her.

    But in my new novel, it actually has a lot of comedy, and the trials are mostly emotional ones.

  10. That's okay, Dina. One of my pre-readers said my MC should be "sewn up in a bed sheet and beaten with a broom handle."

    Heh heh.

  11. DeAnna, thank you for the early morning giggle.

    And Dina, for the record, I think you put poor Dandi through the proverbial wringer quite adequately. ;-)

  12. Tension Tips:

    A: Keep making things worse for your main character. Example: Take a girl raised as the spoiled, pampered, loved child of two loving parents and have the absolutely worse things happen to her. You can rob her of those parents, but that's too obvious. Make her despised.

    B: Have your main characters do something they would never do: Hero give up his career. Heroine give up her family... If it's important, make them make the impossible choice, the no-win situation. Then figure out how to make it a win-win--for the good guys.

    C: Take them out of their comfort zone. Put the country mouse into the big city is the common theme in romantic comedy. And the other way around. This is the special world.

    And when your characters finally surrender to Gods will, make really bad things happen to test the truth of their new-found faith and trust.

    I've had this happen to me enough I could write a book.

  13. Oh my, we authors are mean people. LOL. Those are great, Laurie. I'm using a few of these in the book I'm working on right now.


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