How to Utilize Tension More Effectively

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Tension is a very important story-telling technique. It's basically the way we tug on readers' emotions, how we pull them along page after page with curiosity, fear, or even fascination. Tension tightens readers' fingers to the book, making it very difficult for them to pry themselves away.
In essence, tension is the state of being stretched tight. I like to think of a rope tied to a tarp holding it down against a strong breeze. The harder the wind blows, the tighter the rope grows in its effort to hold that tarp in place. But if the wind dies down, the rope slackens and may even turn limp.

As writers, we can think of the tarp as our overarching story and plot, the rope as the varying types of techniques we use to stretch reader's emotions, and the wind as the amount of force we apply at any given moment.

The Tarp:

A writer must have an overarching plot. Many define plot as the connection of events or a series of causes and effects that are arranged in logical order. However, I would take the definition a step further to say that plot has to encompass the introduction of a story-problem, a problem big enough to last the entire book, a problem that covers and hangs over everything – like a tarp.

Small problems and conflicts are all fine and good (and needed). But without the overarching plot that hangs above everything else, we risk losing reader interest as the smaller cause and effect scenarios work themselves out.

The Rope:

There are two basic types of rope or tension that we can weave into our stories: macro-tension and micro-tension.

1. Macro-tension: This is the type of tension that carries through a broader scope of scenes and story. We introduce longer-lasting issues that stretch readers' emotions so that they have to keep reading to find out what happens. We can exhibit macro-tension in numerous ways:

• We make our bad guys so strong that it appears the good guys won't be able to win.

• We keep stacking the odds against our good guys until it seems they can't climb over.

• We set a ticking clock that our characters must beat or else . . .

• We withhold information to keep our reader guessing.

• We plant questions that we don't fully answer until later.

• We hint at problems that are yet to come.

• We add a sub-plot that has intrigue and inherent conflict.

2. Micro-tension: This is the type of tension that happens on a much smaller scale, usually at the paragraph or short scene level. We often feel this kind of tension when we're watching a movie and we know a knife-wielding criminal is in the house with the heroine. We're with her as hears strange thumps upstairs, as she rises from the couch, creeps down the hallway, and ascends each creaking step one at a time. We're waiting with tightening muscles and shallow breathing for the moment when the intruder jumps out. (Cue the scary music!)

With micro-tension, we stretch the paragraph or scene as taut as we can. We can do that a number of ways:

• We show more details; we move our "video camera" much more slowly and carefully, showing each step of the unfolding drama.

• We utilize the five senses to evoke a certain mood.

• We share the character's internal narration, their reactions, their churning emotions.

• We use contrast (instead of our character sneaking up the stairway, we can make her oblivious to the danger that awaits her).

The Wind:

As writers, we're the wind. We control how much pressure we apply to our characters and story. Obviously this will vary depending upon the genre we write. Suspense stories will likely have more inherent tension than historicals.

Whatever the genre, however, we writers are the ones who blow the breeze. And for the most part, we'll want to keep a steady stream in order to keep our tension levels tight.

However, we may make our readers weary if we never release the tension but instead keep the wind blowing at gale force all the time without any let up. Imagine reading page after page of both macro and micro tension without anything good ever happening to our characters. Readers may begin to think, what's the point in reading this if the character never succeeds or gets a break? They may begin to think the story is unrealistic or the character too weak.

Thus, the use of tension requires some releasing and then tightening. We blow hard, then relax, only to blow harder the next time. It's a process of give and take, and the better we get at it, the better we engage our readers.

How well are you utilizing tension in your stories? Any other tips that you can share with us? We'd love to hear them!

*Photo credit: Flickr Ollie Brown

P.S. My young adult e-novella, THE VOW (published by Harper Collins) just released! It's a prequel to the first book in my YA series coming out in March. If you love castles, knights, and the middle ages, then check it out!


  1. Jody, this is a great illustration of how to add tension. I'm always looking at ways to improve in this area. Thank you!

  2. I especially like the idea of using the "video camera" to show tension; one thing I struggle with in my first drafts is that I have too many "close-ups" and not enough scenes that show what else is going on.

    1. Yes, I do think we have to be careful to have too many close-ups and miss the bigger picture. Writing is all about balance, right? And I think it just takes lots of practice (and a good editor!) to help us learn how to find that balance.

  3. Great article on tension. I will be referring back to this. Thanks!

    1. So glad you liked it, Darlene! Thanks for reading it!

  4. It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such ideas in the future as well. This was actually what I was looking for, and I am glad to came here! Thanks for sharing the such information with us.

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