Last month, I wrote about the importance of including tension in every scene—and on every page—of your story. Today, I’d like to follow up that post by talking about different types of tension. What are some methods of infusing tension into your scenes? What do different types of tension look like, and how might they be used? Here are a few:
- Foreshadowing and dramatic irony
Foreshadowing is when a writer gives a hint or sign of what is to come in the future. Dramatic irony is when the readers know more about what’s to come next than the characters do. Both foreshadowing and dramatic irony can create tension even during quiet or happy scenes. Foreshadowing can hint to the reader that even though things are happy right now, something dark is about to happen next. Similarly, dramatic irony creates tension when the readers know that something terrible is going to happen even though the characters don’t.
Let’s look at an example. The Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket infamously use these techniques. Readers are told from the very first book that there won’t be a happy ending, and that nothing but misfortune will befall the protagonists. This instantly hooks readers (Why won’t there be a happy ending? What kinds of bad things will happen?) and also frequently creates tension. Every time the protagonists experience a moment of happiness or think that their troubles might finally be over, the reader already knows that they’re wrong, and therefore something bad must be about to happen. The narrator often interjects to remind readers about this, and even goes so far as to spoil some of the events that haven’t happened yet.
Of course, this is an extreme example; you certainly don’t have to spoil the twists in your book in advance in order to create tension. But the same techniques can be used on a smaller scale. Hinting to the reader, even subtly, that all may not be as it seems, or that darkness lurks on the horizon, is a great way to infuse scenes with tension.
2. Circumstantial tension
Circumstantial tension is what you’re most likely to think of when you hear the word “tension.” It’s the tension that comes from external circumstances or outside forces working against your character. Whenever circumstances outside a protagonist’s control are causing conflict, that’s circumstantial tension. This is the primary way in which tension often manifests itself, and it’s certainly important. But it also isn’t the only type of tension, and should be used in conjunction with others.
3. Tension between characters
This is probably my favorite type of tension, and one that I think is often underutilized. Each character in your story should have their own goals and motivations. The more those goals clash with each other, the more conflict and tension there will be. If the characters in your story get along perfectly well, consider ways to increase the tension between them. How can you place them at odds with each other? On what issues do they disagree? In what ways might they misunderstand each other? How do their goals conflict?
That’s not to say that your characters must always bicker with each other or should always be kept apart by silly misunderstandings. But it’s entirely possible—and, I would argue, necessary—for two characters to disagree at times, even if they love and/or respect one another.
For example, I’m currently working on a novel about two sisters. Both sisters love and care for each other very much, and they even have the same goal. But they have very different personalities and very different ideas about how to reach that goal, all of which constantly places them at odds with each other. Additionally, one of them is harboring a dark secret that will hurt her sister if it comes to light (which, of course, it does). Readers are gradually given hints about this secret from the very beginning, so that even during peaceful moments between the two sisters, there is tension as one of them tries to conceal it from the other. All of this is complicated by the fact that, being sisters, they have years of shared history and previous (mis)conceptions about each other that affect the way they relate. Their relationship, while strong, is placed under constant strain, which provides an underlying tension in nearly every interaction they have.
- Romantic tension
This is, of course, the tension that exists between two characters who are romantically interested in each other. Romantic tension is crucial to any romance plot or subplot. It might exist in the moment they first notice each other, or when they realize they’re attracted to each other, or when they want to kiss but are afraid to take a chance. It’s romantic (and sexual) tension that builds true chemistry.
What other types of tension are there? Which ones do you utilize? Let me know in the comments!
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