Tension is one of the fundamental elements of any story. In order to keep your readers turning pages, there should be constant conflict, in every scene and on every page.
However, it can be challenging to maintain a high level of conflict in every scene without it feeling stale, or without including too many overdramatic moments. You can’t have someone running in with a gun every chapter, for example. Constant high-action scenes can actually leave readers feeling breathless and tired instead of engaged.
So how, then, can you maintain conflict even in quieter moments? The answer is tension. Tension is a strained condition, a tightening; in your story, it acts essentially like micro-conflict infusing every scene. It’s the underlying pressure that builds throughout your story until it bursts in the climactic moment. When used correctly, it will keep readers turning pages from beginning to end.
So how can you utilize it? Let’s look at some examples.
First, consider Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry doesn’t actually reach Hogwarts and investigate the mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone until quite a ways into the book, but the tension starts in the very beginning. When we first meet present-day Harry, he’s living in a cupboard under the stairs in the home of his abusive and magic-hating aunt and uncle, who refuse to let him read the mysterious letters arriving from Hogwarts. This creates instant tension. Harry can’t just read the letter and go off to Hogwarts; that would be too easy.
Then, once Harry receives his letter and goes to school, the tension doesn’t dissipate. In fact, it ratchets up a notch, as Harry learns that his parents were killed by a dark wizard (whose followers may be lurking about) and that he’s actually famous in a world he doesn’t even know how to navigate yet. Much more tension! And all of this before we even see the central conflict of the book regarding the Stone.
Second example: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. There is tension all throughout this book, and not just during the Games themselves. Consider the relationship between Katniss and Peeta before the Games begin. They have to pretend to be friends, an idea which is abhorrent because they know only one of them can survive the Games. This makes every single scene between them rife with tension, even when they’re just eating breakfast on the train or chatting on the roof. And then there’s an additional layer of tension because of their backstory: Katniss feels indebted to Peeta because he showed her great kindness in the past. This tension informs every single scene between them, and it only increases as their relationship gets more complex and the stakes get higher throughout the book (and the series).
Still not sure how to utilize tension in your story? Think of it this way: tension will result from any two characters acting in opposition to each other. The simplest conversation, for example, can be rife with tension if each participant is trying to leverage it to get what they want. Consider The Hunger Games example above, where Katniss and Peeta are forcibly placed in opposition to one another. If you aren’t sure how to inject tension into a scene, think about what each character wants and how they might oppose each other.
Tension is a fundamental tool that should be used at every stage of your story. It should hook readers from the start and keep them turning pages until the end. Even quiet moments can and should be infused with an underlying tension that will keep readers engaged.
Do you struggle with tension in your manuscript? Do you have any tips for utilizing it? What are some other great examples? Let me know in the comments!
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