Ramping Tension to the Max in Your Novel

I hope I don’t need to tell you why you need tension in your novel. If I do, then I suggest you stop reading this post and spend some time reading some writing craft books and blog posts on novel structure. I don’t mean to be snarky here; this is sage advice. Too many manuscripts come across my desk completely void of tension. However, I assume that the reason is the writer just has no idea how to create tension on every page—which is what a writer should aim for.

Every page? Is that possible. Yes, it is. And as an author, I work hard toward that goal—to keep up a continual sense of tension, which creates anticipation and interest on the reader’s part.

The Different Types of Tension

But how can an author create tension. Just what is tension, anyway? In real life, we avoid tension, often at all costs. We don’t want to be tense, and we don’t like tense situations—they stress us out. And we don’t want others around us to be tense (although, some people are really into drama, and I can attest there are those who really love such drama and feed off it).

So let’s break this down a bit. First, we need to look at two aspects of tension. There is the tension the characters feel as individuals and then there is the overall tension in the story. Don’t confuse action with tension. Don’t confuse high drama and high stakes with tension. You can have the most exciting plot elements in the world—with car chase scenes and buildings blowing up and the threat of the end of the world and still completely lack any tension—as far as the reader is concerned.

So while you may be writing about tense things that should make people feel tense or you are showing characters under stress, that doesn’t necessarily equate to your book’s tension. Which  is to say that the tension a writer should be aiming for is something other than feeling uptight or worried.

Make Your Reader Tense

What we as writers want is tension in the reader. And that kind of tension is not dependent on what kind of action is going on in a story. Even the most subdued, quiet, nothing-seems-to-be-happening scene can have tension ramped to the max.

No, this doesn’t mean we want our readers to be stressed-out—although if you are writing intense suspense, that probably is exactly your aim. The kind of tension we want readers to feel is a sense of heightened anticipation, interest, curiosity, excitement. This is a good kind of tension. Think of the tension in a tightrope. We want a reader’s attention to be taut.

In other words, we want readers to care so much about what is going on that they are uncomfortable. And when someone is uncomfortable, they want to resolve whatever it is to the point they can again feel comfortable.

A Good Kind of Tense

It’s not always a bad kind of discomfort we want to put into our novels, like waiting at the doctor’s office to get test results. I mean the kind of discomfort you feel when you are waiting for your best friend to walk out of the security area of the airport into your arms. The kind of discomfort you feel when you are waiting for your child’s name to be called out at the graduation ceremony. The kind of tension you feel waiting to meet your new grandchild. It’s a good-feeling tension. And readers love it.

It’s the “high” I long for as a reader, and cherish in a great novel. And something I don’t often experience. To me, what sets apart a so-so or good book from a terrific one is the tension created (in me) as I read the story. The more gripped (tense) I am, the more immersed I am in the world of the story, the happier I am.

The Secret to Tension

So what is the secret of creating that kind of tension in a novel? I’ll tell you what is at the heart of great tension in a story, and I bet you won’t be surprised at my answer: great characters. Characters with a lot of inner conflict that is continually present.

Sure, outer conflict will add to that tension. But if your reader doesn’t care about what happens to your character—because you did not present and carefully showcase an empathetic, intriguing, vulnerable, engaging character—they won’t have much interest in the story and won’t feel that niggling need to know what happens next. Granted, you need these great characters in a well-designed and well-executed plot. But that is not all you need to have tension ramped to the max.

In order to have tension on every page, you have to take this a step further. You need microtension.

Aim at Mastering Microtension

Microtension—a term and concept that literary agent Donald Maass pretty much coined and defined—is tension infused in every paragraph of your novel. Yes, it can be done. You can have tension oozing out of every page. Sure, you want moments when your readers feel anxious or worried for your characters because they care what happens to them. But true page-by-page tension is a combination of a terrifically executed compelling plot and writing that shows continual inner and outer conflict going on with all the characters.

Why does that create tension? Because the first and foremost—and most important—way you show tension is to make your readers care about your characters, and then make things as difficult as you can for them.

No Conflict, No Story

Let me just say this: without constant tension in your story, you won’t have a story. We went over the pillar of novel construction all about conflict with high stakes. If there are no stakes, no risks, nothing for your protagonist to lose, then how can you have any tension? You can’t. And you can’t have a compelling story either. So tension is story. So outer conflict throughout is crucial.

And the inner conflict your characters struggle with also creates tension. If your characters aren’t having problems making choices and don’t have conflicting feelings, your scenes will lack tension. Way too many scenes I critique show the characters going along in their everyday lives without anything bothering them. They are fairly happy, and they aren’t dealing with any stressful situations. They meet their friends for coffee or stand around chatting about unimportant, trivial things. Folks, trust me: these scenes have no tension and hence generate no interest whatsoever.

I’m going to go more in depth in next week’s post about microtension, and show some ways you can create that on every page of your novel. But for now, keep in mind the important points about creating tension. First, create great characters that struggle with inner and outer conflict. Second, have a terrific plot that features lots of outer conflict (which creates tension in the story). Third, have those high stakeshigh for the protagonist and that impacts her goal for the book. We’ve covered all these things in our four corner pillars of novel construction, so if you need to go back over them, do so. Go over the checklists you’ve been given (links below). If your corner pillars are strong, you are well on your way to creating great tension.

Any thoughts about how you create tension in a novel? What kinds of scenes, to you, create the most tension? What has to happen in a scene for you to turn pages, anxious to know what happens next?

Inspection checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Inspection Checklist 4-theme with a heart

Inspection Checklist 5-Plots and Subplots in a String of Scenes

Inspection Checklist 6-Secondary Characters with Their Own Needs

Inspection Checklist 7-Setting with a Purpose

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  1. This is the very reason I am re-reading and editing my newest novel. I have a great story but it was lacking something I just couldn’t put a name to. TENSION was it! Thanks for a superb point.

  2. An excellent post Suzanne.Your checklists are equally valuable as guides for thinking. Is there ever a place for scenes that are simply enjoyable in themselves? Yes they must advance the story, and have the microtension required in themselves, but in a demanding book that takes concentration, can one give the reader time out? To over-hear a conversation? Take in an unfamiliar place? Listen to an internal conflict or speculation?( A sort of microholiday from the central action?) If so how does one decide how long is too much?

  3. Hi, Suzanne, another excellent post. I think this pillar is really a key one and probably one of the most difficult to understand and achieve. When you said that there should be tension on every page, I gulped. Then when you started talking about microtension, I had a better understanding of what you were trying to get at. Understanding that concept also helps when editors say that every scene has to count, it has to either be putting up road blocks for the protagonist or tearing them down and in doing so, advancing the story. Two types of tension I like are physical danger (someone is potentially gonna get caught or killed) or a misunderstanding in a love story that separates the lovers.

  4. Excellent post. I’d like add one other factor. Tension applied at an even level will soon become boring. Tension needs to be modulated up and down, snap out of nowhere, cause anticipation, and never completely resolve itself.

    Last evening, I watched “Silence of the Lambs” for the umpteenth time. I didn’t realized that no one was killed on screen. Off to the side yes, but no bloody slo-mo dying. The tension came first from a seemingly weak young woman battling not only the worst monster in the world but the complete wackjob Buffalo Bill. I about peed my pants a dozen times. Small thing like creepy places, frightening situations, helpless victims, and the ordinary background that seemed so out of place is where Thomas Harris (and the screen writer and movie crew) found a horror story that lives in the imagination long after the film is over.

    I wish I could do that. I’ll keep trying.

    1. Good point, Bryan, you can gradually increase tension without letup. Even steady increasing increments can be tense and riveting. This is different from having a high-action scene followed by a contemplative one. Even in novels with subdued or low-action scenes, you can have intense tension because 1) the reader really cares what will happen to the characters 2) the stakes are HIGH for the characters and 3) the writing includes the microtension needed to be riveting (more on that next week).

      1. You’re right, of course. In addition, each genre has its own conventions. I prefer the high octane type, but I also enjoy the more subtle tension that writers like John Le Carre has mastered. Both work.

  5. This is one of the hardest things to get right. Thanks for the post Suzanne; really helpful. Especially inner conflict. Looking forward to the next post.

  6. Really good post! This has helped me understand what is so great about the book I’m reading right now. Hopefully I can turn this into better writing too. 🙂

    I’m about a quarter of the way into Great Expectations (Dickens). For the first several chapters I had a strong foreboding feeling that something would go horribly wrong sooner or later. After reading this post, I see why I feel such tension. The MC has a lot of internal conflict.

    The book opens with him getting away with a misdeed, so he is in constant fear that he will be found out and punished. But as the reader, I’m more worried that there will be other horrible consequences of him NOT being found out.

    The other internal conflict in the MC,Pip, is that he wants to improve his station in life and has fallen for a girl who is out of his league (so to speak). His obsession with her, even though she doesn’t appear in the story any more, make me think that she will return in some capacity. Will she need his help? Will she continue to scorn him? The tension with the girl seems trivial, but it’s enough to keep the reader guessing – trying to predict where the story is going.

    I guess the tension comes because we can plainly see what the MC wants, and how the plot thwarts him. Seems so simple! But it’s not at all simple when I’m trying to create it myself!

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