Without tension, it’s almost impossible to hold a reader’s attention and keep her turning the pages of your story.
And yet many of us, despite knowing this (that tension is a key ingredient in sustaining a reader’s attention), produce stories that lack tension.
Why is it, I wonder, that it’s so hard to create a story with tension?
Tension, as a noun, is defined as “the state of being stretched tight,” or “mental or emotional strain,” and, as a verb, to “apply a force (to something) to stretch it.”
But where does tension come from? And does tension depend on the stakes involved--on what the character may gain or lose in trying to reach his or her goal? Or does it depend on something else, such as the outcome of an inner conflict, say, or the nature of a personal quest (or the attributes of the person on the quest), or the effort a character makes to attain a future reward?
Sometimes a reader can feel the tension immediately in the voice of a first-person narrator. That is, the reader may detect an undercurrent of anxiety or fear or doubt in the narrator’s voice –a hint of the narrator’s mental or emotional strain--that ripples to the surface of the page and makes its way into the reader’s heart.
Let’s say a first-person narrator wants to ask a woman on a date but is worried about being turned away, or needs more money to meet the recently increased rent but is afraid of going into the boss’ office to ask for a raise, or stands on a bridge because of a dare but is afraid that he won’t survive if he jumps into the river below.
In any of these situations, the first-person narrator’s voice will fill with different levels of tension, and this tension will spill onto the page so the reader can feel it. This tension is what will engage the reader’s sympathy and draw the reader into the narrator’s story. And it’s what will plant in our minds the question “What will happen next?” as well as the follow-up question “Will the narrator rise to the occasion and succeed?”
Sometimes you may notice that it’s not the tension in the narrator’s voice that draws you into a story but the tension built into the situation that a third-person narrator is describing.
For instance, if the narrator describes an assassin hiding on the roof of a building preparing to take his shot, or a quarterback running one more play to win the game, or a lawyer pleading before a judge to save his clients from life imprisonment for a crime they didn’t commit, the tension of these situations will pique a reader’s curiosity about what happens next.
Tension—“the state of being stretched tight”— is what grabs our attention and compels us to keep reading so that we find out how the story turns out and what happens to the characters.
This tension may not always be obvious and palpable from the first page, but it must be there, building just beneath the surface, if the story is going to hold our attention.
You’ll know when it’s missing because that’s when you’ll put the book down to refill your cup with coffee or tea and forget to go back to the book. You’ll stop reading because the tension slackened or disappeared completely, or because you got tired of waiting for the tension to appear.
Are you reading a novel and noticing that your attention is flagging and you’re ready to put the story down? If so, can you spot where the tension is missing, or where the author might have added it?
If you’re unable to stop reading a story, and you find yourself rushing to turn the pages as fast as you can to see what happens next, can you pinpoint the tension in the scenes, as well as the line of increasing tension as the story progresses?
Whatever book you’re reading now, try to identify the tension in the story, and notice how identifying the tension (or lack of it) in another writer’s work can help you identify the tension (or lack of it) in your own.
For more information on tension in your story, visit: