Written by JJ Barnes
Tension in a story is a way of drawing your audience in. It keeps them interested and makes them invested in reading to the end. Without tension, a story feels a bit flat. If there is no tension, your audience won’t feel the need to come back or keep reading.
What Causes Story Tension?
Tension in stories comes from the stakes. The stakes are found in the consequences for if your Protagonist fails.
When you start your story at the Inciting Incident, you’re setting your Protagonist in motion. Your Protagonist is on a journey to try and accomplish a story goal, and your story follows them on that path. You stick with them until they either complete their goal and get what they want, or fail and have to learn to live without it.
The more important your Protagonist’s goal is, the higher the stakes, the greater the tension. If the consequences of failing are death, that makes their goal very important. The stakes are literally life or death. If their goal is to get a date to a wedding, the stakes are low. If they don’t get a date, they could be lonely or embarrassed, but they’re not going to die and life will move on.
The tension in a romcom is lower than the tension in a thriller, because the consequences of failing are less. But that doesn’t mean there is no tension. Tension can be in any story.
How To Create High Tension
If your scene needs tension, you need to focus on your character’s fear of failure.
Imagine you’re writing a horror, and your character is being stalked around an abandoned factory by a killer clown. If their attention and focus is on what they want for dinner or the boy they fancy, then it suggests that the consequences of failure aren’t actually that important. Maybe the killer clown isn’t really dangerous, or they’re so strong they could stop him with ease. That’s fine, but it’s not tense and it completely changes the landscape of the story you’re telling.
If you want your audience to feel the tension of the scene, they need to feel your Protagonist’s own tension. Explore your Protagonist’s interiority and their fear. Use show don’t tell to show how their skin is prickling, their palms are sweating, their heart is banging.
What are the consequences of your Protagonist failing to escape? How do they feel about it? How is it affecting them? That should be the focus.
How To Create Tension In A Low Tension Story
If your story doesn’t have life or death consequences, it can, and should, still have tension.
I suggested your story could be a romcom where a woman needs a date for a wedding. The consequences are not too serious. She’ll survive. Life will go on. There will be other weddings, other dates. It won’t be her entire focus because needing a date to a wedding doesn’t steal attention from the day to day pressures of life. She could still go to work, still socialise with friends, still think about issues beyond the need for a wedding date.
But this is a story and it has to matter. She has to become motivated for a reason, and she has to have enough drive to pursue that goal for the course of your story. If she loses interest or isn’t really bothered, there’s no drive to invest in the story for your audience. She doesn’t care, so why should they. So find the tension.
If she doesn’t get a date to the wedding, there has to be some consequences that she wants to avoid. Perhaps her mother has been nagging her to get a date and wants to set her up with somebody thoroughly unpleasant. Or, the man she wants to take as a date is the man she has been desperately in love with and this is the only chance she has got to ask him out.
The more layers of pressure you can add, the more reasons to fear failure you can throw at her, the higher the tension will be in your story. The more motivated she will be to accomplish her goal, and the more invested your audience will be in seeing her succeed.
How To Grow Story Tension From Low To High
Most stories don’t require high tension from start to finish. Stories should have a natural ebb and flow, pacing that slows down and speeds up depending on the scene your character is in. If the entire story is high stakes, there is no room for sub plots, no space for character development. They have to remain fully focused at all times because the consequences of failure are always dominating their brain.
The best method is to grow tension as your story moves forwards, and really ramp it up as you get to the climax.
To do this, the direct story plot and consequences of failure have to become an increasing focus.
Time-Locks To Increase Story Tension
Time-locks are a really good way of ramping up the tension. A time-lock adds the idea that if you cannot complete your task by a certain date, your chances are over.
For instance, this is a good way of using the wedding date scenario in your romcom. The wedding is coming and it’s the last time your Protagonist will ever see the man she loves. For whatever reason. If she doesn’t ask him out by that date, her chances are gone forever. As the wedding approaches, the pressure on her to complete her goal grows. At the start of the story, she is able to focus on multiple issues, multiple goals. But as the wedding approaches, the opportunities to complete her goal become fewer, it begins to dominate her attention.
This increasing focus builds the tension. As the story moves forwards, your character and your audience both know that the time is coming. It’s now or never. The focus grows, the tension grows, the stakes become more and more real.
Grow Story Tension With Emotional Fall-Out
The stakes are found in the consequences of failure, but if those consequences have an emotional cost, it feels even more real. In your life or death story, the consequences are clear. It makes sense. As the end approaches and the potential for death grows, the tension grows.
However, if you add a layer of emotional devastation to that potential, the tension grows even more. The potential for your character’s death is one layer of tension. But imagine your character’s daughter is hidden somewhere, and if your character dies, nobody will ever find her. She’ll die isolated and alone because your character didn’t get a chance to rescue her.
That addition means not only is the tension evident in the life or death consequences of your story, but in the emotional fall-out, both for your character and your audience. You can play on it, focus on it. Explore their relationship, what it means to them, how frightened and desperate the daughter is, how desperate the mother is to rescue her.
Knowing that the little girl could die alone and scared has emotional fall-out that will drag at your audience’s attention. They won’t leave your story because the tension is so high. They need to know that little girl is saved. They are frightened that she won’t be. They’re gripped.
All Stories Need Tension, Even Gentle Ones
You might feel like you’re writing such a gentle story that tension isn’t important. But I disagree. You don’t need a sweaty palmed, high stakes, high tension story. But you do need your story to matter. If your story doesn’t matter because it doesn’t really matter if your Protagonist gets what they want or not, your audience has no reason to bother reading it.
Tension is what will keep their interest. It makes your story matter, your character matter, and motivates your audience to keep coming back every time they want something to read.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose