Understanding how to create tension in a story is key to writing a gripping, ‘I’ll just read one more page before bed’ read. Here are eight steps to ensure your story has effective narrative tension. Watch the brief video below, then read the article:
1: Create a conflict crucial to your characters
2: Create engaging characters with opposing goals
3: Keep raising the stakes
4: Allow tension to ebb and flow
5: Keep making the reader ask questions
6: Create internal and external conflict
7: Create secondary sources of tension
8: Make the story unfold in a shorter space of time
1. Create a conflict crucial to your characters
When planning your story’s major conflicts, choose a conflict that matters. What is your main character’s first goal? What tension or friction could stand in their way?
For example, you might have a teenage rebel protagonist who wants to stay out later than their curfew and get up to no good with their friends. A likely conflict would be a disagreement with their parents, and consequences that thwart some of their further goals.
Conflict can be as small as an internal struggle or a relationship between two people breaking down. Or it can be as large as the fate of the entire universe. The key is that the conflict has to relate to and threaten the most important things in your characters. Work out your characters’ first goals and the rising and falling action that stands between them and what they want using the ‘Character’ and ‘Core Plot’ parts of Now Novel’s story outlining tool.
2. Create engaging characters with opposing goals
Your readers need to care what happens to your characters, and in order to make your readers care, you need to first engage them. Many writers feel they need to write characters who are likable, and this is certainly the best way to guarantee reader identification.
However, characters we don’t relate to all the time (or even don’t relate to any of the time) are often equally intriguing. You can still make the reader care about a character by making them interesting and engaging.
One way to make characters engaging is to give them opposing goals, views, and other features. Rebel Timmy (the character profile example above) might have a mom who is a moralizing prude, and a dad who’s laid back and doesn’t believe in disciplining his kids. This triangle could create an interesting, tense character dynamic between the three. Also, different readers will identify more with unique characters in this family setup.
The key here is that characters’ personalities and approaches to conflict can differ and create disagreements, even fireworks.
3. Keep raising the stakes
For narrative suspense and tension, your protagonist needs to try and fail several times. Or, if they reach their goal at first try, adverse consequences need to lurk in the background. For example, Timmy might arrive at the party, having snuck out undetected, and notice his phone buzzing away with worried and/or angry texts. This small sign tells us he isn’t completely off the hook.
There are a number of ways to structure your novel to ensure that you have points of rising conflict throughout.
One way is to keep the rule of threes in mind. The rule of threes simply states that there should be two unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem before the third successful one. When you brainstorm rising and falling plot points using the ‘Core Plot’ section of our outlining tool, try to create two falling plot points (situations that take your character further from where they want to be) to one event where their situation improves.
The key to how to build tension and suspense in a scene or story is to let it ebb and flow.
4. Allow tension to ebb and flow
It may tempt you to keep a constant stream of exciting things happening in order to ensure that the interest of your readers never flags. Yet this will, in fact, have the opposite effect.
Not only do you need quiet periods to build things like character, but if it’s all tension, all the time, your readers will simply get worn out.
It’s important to pace your suspense, and while the big moments may grow until you reach the climax at the end of the book, along the way, there should be smaller moments of tension and ease, too.
5. Keep making the reader ask questions
How do you keep readers engaged in the quieter moments of your story, when it isn’t all nail-biting action and hair’s-breadth escapes? One way is by creating good characters, who are interesting even when not in a state of emergency.
You also do so by ensuring that you are always raising interesting questions that your readers will want the answers to. Try to raise new questions at the ends of chapters in particular, so that you create a sense of forward propulsion to the next event (and the next).
6. Create internal and external conflict
Tension is most interesting and varied when it arises both from forces outside of the character and from those within. External conflict is conflict such as a fistfight between two adversaries, or a character’s fight for survival on a bitterly cold mountain pass (a ‘character versus environment’ conflict). Internal conflict refers to characters’ inner struggles. The tough choices they grapple with, and the flaws, vulnerabilities or weaknesses that get in their way.
In some cases, the two types of tension may reflect one another; a character who struggles with a terror of public speaking may face an external conflict that brings that internal tension to the fore (for example, a sudden requirement that they give a major public talk).
7. Create secondary sources of tension
Often, we juggle multiple tensions and challenges at once. The protagonist of your romantic novel may not only be dealing with unrequited love, but also with her dying parent or a challenge at work. Your FBI agent protagonist may experience tension with her husband.
Think about your own life and the lives of everyone you know. Who has to juggle many balls in the air right now? What are the individual challenges? We all deal with conflict and tension from multiple sources, and your characters should be no different.
8. Make the story unfold in a shorter space of time
In a popular TV series like 24 or a tense thriller by Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn, characters are constrained by a time limit. A classic, Agatha Christie -like mystery novel set-up, in which a murder occurs at a country house over a weekend, is a good example of this.
This approach is not suitable for every story, but if you can narrow the story you are telling to a short time-frame, and keep events concrete, clear and fast-paced, requiring urgent resolution, this will aid tension.