Creating Tension in a Story

Tension in any story is what makes us, the reader or the television viewer, stay glued to our seats. It’s what has us curiously, adamantly reading or watching to see how the heck the character is going to get out of this!

Recently I started watching season 5 of Dexter and this show provides a great example. For anyone who has ever seen any of the Dexter series you might have noticed that things always go wrong! Not only do they go wrong for Dexter Morgan, but they go wrong for secondary characters as well. Rarely does Dexter’s goal of [killing bad guy # 33] go right. No, what happens instead is people interrupt Dexter with real, legit crises (usually via phone) and while Dexter is in the process of taking care of those real-life needs, the bad guy wakes up and either gets away or fights Dexter or some such thing. The point is…things do not go right! In fact, they can go very, very wrong in even more and more complicated ways. For instance, some of the most intense episodes from the Dexter series is when the police start tracking a killer or person who is actually Dexter. Now he must hide evidence, tamper with it, while the people he works with are right there. Naturally this leads to suspicion.

Oh Doakes, How I miss you and your awesome attitude.

Now there are other examples of this both in fiction and in TV/movies. For instance, The Lord of the Rings (The first book, specifically) is an example of things going more and more wrong. Even if you haven’t read the books and you only watch the movies. Next time you read the book or watch the movie, try to notice how everything that can go wrong…does! For you romance readers out there, newer examples of seeing this happen are in Larrisa Ione’s “Eternal Rider” book and Thea Harrison’s “Dragon Bound.”

So how do you create tension in a story? I am not proclaiming to be a master at this or anything near it. I am merely aware of how important (and utterly entertaining) Tension is and want to point it out to you writers! If you have any ways to create Tension, leave a comment with what you do. 

  1. Everything that can go wrong, should. 
In terms of a romance novel (since that’s what I’m most familiar with), this means that everything that can strive to keep the Heroine and Hero apart should try to! It should make the job of the Hero and Heroine harder; they should have to work to stay together. If the Hero and Heroine are in an epic story to stop the end of the world from happening because of an evil wizard, then make everything go wrong! They shouldn’t easily out-maneuver the bad guy so there isn’t a climatic scene at the end. There should be an epic battle at the end, which against all luck and hope, the Hero and Heroine barely manage to pull through and defeat the evil wizard.
  1. 2. Every scene should feature: a char’s PoV, that char’s goal, and an antagonist.
Not every antagonist is a villian. In this case the purpose of the antagonist is to stop the character from reaching its goal. This means the antagonist can completely stop the character or it can just delay the character from getting it (creates frustration which creates tension).
Don’t believe me? Think about this. *Joe runs to the only gas station near his house because it’s the only one open late at night to buy a bottle of aspirin for his father who, at this very minute, is having a heart attack at home. So Joe at first 1. Can’t find the Aspirin in his panic. 2. Finally finds it, but there’s people in line in front of him. He yells at them that he needs to pay b/c this is an emergency but they only look at him like he’s crazy. 3. He finally gets to pay for his medicine, but the credit card machine is down and he has no cash. With no other choice, he decides to leave with the medicine (aka stealing). 4. The cashier calls the police and gives them Joe’s license plate number. 5. Joe races home, hears sirens, and looks in the rearview mirror to see the police on his trail. He guns the engine for home.*
I’ll stop here, but do you get the point? If the story would have been: Joe needs aspirin for his dad, so runs to the store, finds the meds easily, purchases it without a problem, goes home with all green lights, then administers the meds to his dying father and saves him…well what a lame story! There’s no conflict in this version of it.
In the scenes that would make up Joe’s story, these scenes would be told from Joe’s Point of View, with his goal [to get Aspirin for his dying dad], and the antagonists are: the people in line slowing things down, the cashier who can’t help him w/o cash, and later the police officer trying to pull him over. *Note: an antagonist is always a person and not a broken ATM, for instance).
I’m going to end this article and perhaps extend it at a later time, because I think it’s long enough! So the next time you’re writing, think about Tension and how to create it, how to make things go wrong so that your character barely slides through with the hair on his or her head.
Don’t forget to find me at my website.
Happy reading,
T. A. Grey

2 thoughts on “Creating Tension in a Story

  1. Tension is always good. Though it can drive the reader crazy…in a good way.
    The best examples of tension in fiction I can think of are Pandora Hearts (so many cliff-hangers and unanswered questions) and Fawlty Towers (in a comedic way).
    You should write more posts about this kind of thing.

  2. Thank you so much. I’ll definitely have to add more to this topic, because there is more I can say. I really want to check out Pandora Hearts because you make it sound so good! See, cliff-hangers and unanswered questions are even more ways to create tension and keep the reader coming back for more. Great point!

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