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7 Ways Build Tension in Your Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

In writing, you use tension to sustain a reader’s interest and keep the plot moving. However, building tension in your story in a way that is believable to your readers can be difficult for many beginning writers.



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Why Is Tension Important in a Story?

Tension can exist between characters, as an overall theme, or as a structural tool, but it is an integral part of both pacing and exposition. On a basic level, building narrative tension is a matter of keeping a reader on the edge of their seat. That kind of emotional investment depends on stakes; if there are no stakes, you could argue there is no story. Whether you’re writing a novel or a short story, stakes are what keep the reader turning the pages.

7 Ways to Build Tension in Your Story

Think of tension as the thoughline connecting plot points, sub-plot points, and character development. Tension is made manifest through a buildup of suspense that is heightened as your protagonist’s situation changes. Here are a few excellent ways to increase the levels of tension in your writing:

  1. The inciting incident: In most stories, there is an inciting incident that kicks everything into motion for the main characters. This could be as simple as a pivotal decision, or as dramatic as a fistfight, but either way, it changes the game and sets new stakes.
  2. The ticking clock: The clock is a central feature in most thrillers. One of the most critical tools to generate suspense is to compress a story’s timeline so that the characters are under more pressure. If your story takes place over the course of two weeks, try making it happen in one. Imposing a time limit injects a bit of stress and adrenaline into a storyline. A race against the clock—whether an actual clock or an impending deadline—creates natural tension and speeds characters into new situations.
  3. Withheld information: Instead of immediately telling the reader all at once what a character discovers when entering a suspenseful situation, use description to lengthen the moment and create tension. Begin by writing an incomplete description—just enough to tease the reader’s interest. Create an obstacle for your characters, something that distracts them. Then give another hint at what they think they see—but again, don’t explain it entirely. Find ways to drag out the description until your readers finally see it.
  4. A plot twist: A plot twist that no one saw coming creates tension by tossing a wrench into a character’s well-laid plans. This can be hinted at throughout the narrative using foreshadowing. Depending on the twist, your characters will need to adapt to their new circumstances.
  5. Conflict: Only conflict moves a story forward—so introduce new problems. Create obstacles for your hero. Whatever situation your hero is facing at the start of the middle section should become worse. If you always give your characters what they want, your story will lack tension. This is what your characters need in order to grow, so don’t let them get off easy. Don’t just think of conflict as dramatic action, it can come in any form—it will depend on what your characters want and what stands in their way of getting it. The most important thing to remember is that conflict should increase as the story progresses.
  6. Backstory: Give a character a complicated history. Revealing your protagonist’s unseen character traits as you tease out their internal conflict can be an effective source of tension. Have they been keeping a secret that affects everyone around them? Will they self-destruct upon hearing bad news they don’t yet know is coming? Explore the true selves of your characters in the context of the story and tension will likely show up.
  7. Cliffhangers: Cliffhangers pose big questions at the end of a chapter or section. Typically, a cliffhanger stops during a climactic event midway through the action, instead of allowing it to play out to its natural conclusion. Is your hero about to push the villain off of a racing yacht? Stop where the hero has the villain in his grip. The reader will want to know how it plays out. You can also provide a surprise at a chapter’s end. This can be a new piece of information or an entire plot twist. Maybe the villain reaches for a hidden knife. Or as your hero is pushing the villain’s head into the sea, he notices a tattoo on his shoulder that means something remarkable—you don’t have to say what. Leave the reader thinking, “All right, I’ll read just one more page...”
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