7 Ways To Build Tension In Writing: Great Tips To Follow

Posted on May 9, 2023

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Written by Sarah Rexford

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Did you know that no matter what genre you write, building tension in writing is what keeps readers turning pages? Whether you write cozy romance novels or edge-of-your-seat thrillers, how you layer in tension is a major selling point.

Yes, you should have well-rounded characters, an established world, and a great plot, but tension is the thread that ties everything together. In this article, I define the role of tension in writing, what tension is, and then provide seven steps you can use to build tension in your next manuscript. 

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What Is The Role Of Tension In Writing? 

The role of tension in writing is to keep the reader intrigued and therefore turning pages to find out what happens next. Think of tension as the pegs that hold your summer camping tent taut against the dirt. 

When you set your tent up, whether you firmly fix your tent pegs or not, you technically have some form of shelter. However, when you stretch your ropes and create tension between your tent and the tent pegs, you create a space within the tent where you can spend the night.

Without tension, the tent falls. The same applies to tension in writing. Without tension, the plot sags. 

What Exactly Is Tension In Writing?

Tension is a type of stressor that keeps characters moving, the plot rolling forward, and determines dialogue. Have you ever watched the television show 24? The ticking clock adds tension to each episode. 

Have you ever watched a romantic comedy with a love triangle? The love triangle adds tension. Think of The Hunger Games or Twilight. Which man will Katniss or Bella choose?

How To Build Tension: 7 Steps

The type of tension you include in your story largely depends on your book’s genre, but there are seven specific ways you can apply tension, no matter what genre you write.

#1 –  Use Dissonance As A Prologue To Your Inciting Incident 

Imagine the following scene: A woman walks down the street, pushing a baby in a stroller. The sun shines and she walks leisurely. 

Now imagine if this scene was changed to the following: A woman walks down the street, pushing a baby in a stroller. Rain soaks her t-shirt, and she walks slowly, as if unaware of the storm. 

This dissonance adds tension. Now you can write directly into your inciting incident. 

#2 – Drive Your Protagonist Toward A Static Goal

Occasionally, I’ll watch a film or read a book where the protagonist’s goal does not appear to be fixed. For instance, at the start of the story they must reach X location, but then they become sidetracked by Y incident. Now their goal is to find a missing person, not reach a location. 

As a reader/moviegoer, this change of goal dissipates the tension. I no longer worry if they will reach their initial goal in time, or at all, because that goal has been voided by the new one. Static goals help maintain tension.

#3 – Be A Hard To Read Writer

You know those people you meet and you just can’t quite figure them out? While this can be detrimental in real life, in story worlds, being hard to read keeps your readers guessing. Instead of laying all your cards on the table, keep some aspects secret. 

#4 – Layer In Backstory As It Relates To The Goal

In addition to being hard to read, be sure to provide your readers with enough backstory to keep them interested, but withhold enough information to keep them reading. 

It’s especially helpful to reveal backstory that influences the story goal. Is your protagonist’s goal to travel to Spain and meet a distant relative? Add in backstory, such as a fear of flying. 

#5 – Ensure Your Conflict Is Logical 

Just as you can use dissonance to create tension, you must also write conflict in a way that makes sense. If your protagonist walks out of a local café and accidentally bumps into a pedestrian and that pedestrian responds illogically (for no clear reason), your conflict will feel false. Double check your conflict to make sure it logically applies to your: 

  • Story setting
  • Protagonist 
  • Orbital characters 
  • Plot
  • Genre 

Logical conflict is key to tension in writing. If your protagonist bumps into someone they had to put a restraining order on, the ensuing conflict should equal the backstory your reader is aware of. 

But, if they bump into a random character who never enters the story again, you may need to ask why you have them bump into someone in the first place! 

#6 – Never Satisfy Your Reader

Cliffhangers are some of writer’s favorite ways to keep their readers reading chapter after chapter, and well into the night. Consider the following two chapter endings:

Example 1 
Chapter 1, last sentence: He ducked out of the sunlight into the dark restaurant and sat at the nearest table. 
Chapter 2, first sentence: Across the room, a dark figure stood up. They’d found him.

Example 2
Chapter 1, last sentence: He ducked out of the sunlight into the dark restaurant and sat at the nearest table. Across the room, a dark figure stood up. They’d found him.

Simply moving two sentences to the end of chapter one instead of the beginning of chapter two leaves your readers dissatisfied enough that they’ll likely keep reading. 

#7 – Save The Big Reveal

Tension in writing is similar to unopened gifts on Christmas Day. As a child, and maybe even as an adult, you feel that tingling in your stomach that a surprise awaits. 

You can use tension in writing to create the same feeling in your readers simply by saving the big reveal. Hint and foreshadow all you want, but make sure you don’t reveal the biggest contributor to the tension until the last moment. 

For instance, let’s say you write crime fiction and throughout the story your FBI agent has felt something’s off about her partner. Regardless, he always comes through for her. It’s not until the last chapter you reveal he’s a double agent and that’s why some of her leads went cold.

Use Tension In Writing Like It’s The Oxygen In Water 

I know most of us are probably not scientists and prefer to stick in the right hemisphere of our brains, but bear with me a moment. Water, or H20, cannot exist without oxygen. Water is not only made up of oxygen, but oxygen is a defining factor in H20.

This example directly correlates to tension in writing. Writing is not only made up of tension, but tension is a defining factor in great storytelling. 

Spoilers ahead.*

Consider The Lord of the Rings series if the below, tension-eliminated points had happened:

  • Frodo does not desire to keep the One Ring
  • Aragorn is not hesitant to become king
  • Faramir and Boromir are equally loved by their father
  • Sméagol frees himself of his Gollum tendencies in the first chapter

The first point drives much of the trilogy. The following three are major parts that all create tension in writing and keep us turning pages (or watching the movies) for long after we thought we’d stop. 

Tension is not all that matters in writing, but it is the thread that ties great writing together. It’s time to get writing!

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