Six Subtle Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writing

If tug of waryou’ve studied the craft of writing for long, you know about tension. I’m assuming you’ve got adequate conflict in your story, that your characters have inner and outer stakes that are deeply personal, and that your story keeps the resolution out of reach until the last chapter.

But there are more subtle ways to keep tension in your work as well. Sometimes all it takes is an added word or a deleted sentence.  

What to Put into Your Story:

1) Increase the volume. This is a term from agent and writer Donald Maass. With a single motion, word, or metaphor, you can make your scene more dramatic. Even a mundane task like packing becomes more important when the character does it with a slow hand or a furtive glance out the window. The reader experiences the character’s conflict over leaving right along with her. Linda Nichols in At the Scent of Water describes her character’s old grief as a wild animal prowling in its cage. That one metaphor revises ordinary grief into perilous grief.

2) Break a victory into several steps. Suzanne Collins is a master at this. Katniss in The Hunger Games doesn’t destroy the careers’ food stash in one quick movement. She works out that it must be done, she distracts the guards from the food, she puzzles out how to destroy it, and then does it not with one arrow, but with three separate shots. The reader is left breathless as she tries to solve the dilemma with Katniss and as the dangerous action is drawn out, page by page, step by step.

3) Write a scene that underscores the character’s arc. After you’ve written your first draft and have done some editing, you now have a richer understanding of what drives your character and what holds him back. Write a fresh scene that encapsulates this as no other scene has. It may just be one of your most powerful scenes, because it will demonstrate your deeper understanding of the tension between your stakes and your conflict.

What to Leave out of Your Story:

1) Don’t use inner dialogue that hints at what your character will do next. My critique partner, Christine Lindsay, in her upcoming novel Veiled at Midnight, wrote a scene in which her character realizes that what happens next is up to her and God alone, so when she changes course it’s no surprise to the reader. When Christine rewrote it, she dropped the inner dialogue. The character without any preamble looks at the man pointing a rifle at the stranger, places her hand on the gun, and lowers it. Because all of the drama is concentrated in the action, it’s startling to the reader and the scene has more impact.

2) Don’t repeat yourself. It’s so tempting. You want the reader to understand your character’s predicament, so you put clues into their dialogue, their actions, their inner thoughts, maybe even in other characters’ thoughts about them. Don’t do it. It slows the story down and reduces the tension. Trust your reader to get it the first time.  

3) Don’t always have characters say what they mean. Have your characters intentionally misdirect dialogue, respond to an unspoken question rather than the spoken one, or let physical cues do the talking for them. It’s called subtexting. When the reader sees that the character has something to hide or that something deeper is going on than the actual words convey, their attention perks up.

10 Ideas for Tension Filled Writing

It was 10:30 at night. Not just any night, but the night before school started. Not just any night-before-school, but my first day of my first year back teaching high school full-time after a decade spent home being a full-time mother to my four precious blessings.

StressedOutWomanI was supposed to be in bed, but instead, I was on the front porch, armed with Rid spray, Rid gel, Rid comb and Rid shampoo angrily picking nits out of my second-born’s hair. She was sobbing. I was sobbing, too. Tears ran down my face making my nose itch. Even my kneecaps (recently shaved, I might add) itched at the mere thought of those hideous creatures.

Arriving home late from a city council meeting, my police chief husband discovered us thusly sobbing, picking and spraying. Without saying a word, he went inside, changed and took over the flashlight holding as we shampooed, checked and double checked until the wee hours of the morning. I flopped into bed exhausted and angry. Why hadn’t my daughter’s friend noticed this illegal immigration into her hair while on a mission trip sooner? Why had my daughter had a sleepover two nights prior, thus accidentally inviting them into our home? How could any of this work out for the best? Surely I would never last an entire school day on four hours of sleep!

That same week, both bathrooms sprung leaks causing a waterfall in my office and falling drywall in the laundry room. I attended Open House with my skirt caught in the back of my belt. My husband kept later-than-usual hours with murder suspects, stabbing suspects and hit-and-run accidents. Wasps made their home under our porch and the upstairs air-conditioning went out. I was hot, tired, cranky and spent my days in fearful waiting for the next plague to strike.

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing. And everything. For it gave me ideas for those times when the ill-timed equivalent of lice arrive on your scene!

1. Remember that the best plots involve conflict, action and drama. If everything in life went according to plan, it would make a boring book. Nobody would read past page two.

2. When life falls apart around you it often provides a forced clarity. Priorities become real. We are reminded that God is as necessary as breath. We invite Him into our lives and into our writing.

3. Every irritating situation has its flip side. Look for the humor and use it to make an unusual tweak in a character or an unique twist in your story line.

4. Listen to real life dialogue and take notes in your head (as if you’re not doing this already!) Sometimes what is being said in response makes a great jumping point for dialogue in your novel or a superb illustration in your non-fiction work.

5. Most likely, you didn’t expire from the stress of these multiple irritations, and your character won’t either. Rather, they can grow, change and develop. It can be a point of humor or a highlight of your character’s movement toward your desired ending.

6. What scriptures, friends, or soothing rituals helped you to cope? Might your characters borrow some of them for their problem pages?

7. Taking a walk or a laughter break can help alleviate stress. Send your character on an imaginary walk, or take note cards outside with you on a real walk and see what happens. Let your characters talk to you about what’s going on in their lives. What tickles your characters’ funny bones?

8. Was there a nemesis involved in your frustrating situation? Maybe this can be a starting point for a quirky or irritating companion to your main character. What did people say about your week/day of crisis that got on your last nerve? Serve it up on the page and make it fit your story.

9. A clump of events or disaster in your character’s life can likewise point him or her to a God who is very real and present. Recall the touch points in your frustrations that made you reach out to Him almost in spite of your determination to be angry or bitter.

10. If you’re stuck in a louse-y situation just now, either in your personal life or in your life between the pages– remember, just as chapters end, this too shall pass. If you’ll likely laugh about it later, try to laugh now. Almost everything, sooner or later, makes its way into the writing craft!