Monday, February 7, 2011

How To Create Tension

Happy Monday, everyone! First things first, the magic clothes dryer was still magical when I went to the Laundromat this weekend. I may never have to spend another quarter on drying clothes as long as I live. Now, onto tension!

Last week, we had an interesting discussion of tension. It started here, and Scott mentioned it earlier here, but Andrew also had a nice post about tension, including the idea of high stakes, here. His examples are great, so go check out the post.

I wanted to throw in my own thoughts, not so much on whether or not we should have tension, but on how to create tension, as I see it.

Start actual blog post content now.

I'll first define tension as that element in a story that makes a reader want to keep reading. General, yes. And, my definition is not based on any text book or anything. I was experiencing it last night, actually, as I was reading more of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. (The chapter titles alone make this book worth reading.)*

How do we as writers make a reader want to keep reading? I can think of four approaches.

A. What's in the shoebox?

The first approach is what I think of as the What's-in-the-shoebox? approach. It's a technique that I see most often in contemporary fiction, and it can create a lot of tension.

I became aware of this technique when I was reviewing a WIP that involved a character who had received a mysterious shoebox from a long lost friend. At the start of each chapter, the character tried to make time to go up to her room to open the shoebox to see what was inside, but by the end of each chapter, she got too distracted by life crises to actually do so. I raced through the book, asking myself, "What's in the shoebox? What's in the bloody shoebox?" Talk about tension. The writing could have been horrible, and I still would have kept reading if only to find out what was in the shoebox.

The advantage to this approach is that it's straight forward and pretty thrilling. I think of all the techniques this one probably makes me read the fastest. The disadvantage is that a not-so-good writer can make a reader angry by holding off something too long.

Distractions are a must in this technique. Every time you postpone the reveal of what's in the shoebox, you have to offer up another bit of writing that's equally interesting, otherwise, the reader will skip ahead or toss the book out of the car window...if he or she happened to be driving while reading.

The best writers will set up this tension in a natural way, so it doesn't feel so much like a tease, but a normal progression of the story. Michelle uses this a lot, and she does it well. Check out Cinders, for example.

B. The Fortune-teller told you so

If I could fake a gypsy accent, I would do so now. You know what I mean, right? A character decides (usually against his/her will) to visit a fortune teller, and the fortune teller says something like "You will die underneath a blue light by the kiss of a poisonous tree octopus."

In this form of tension, a reader is told the end of the story, and then gets the excitement of figuring out how the character reaches that end. It's not about point A or B, but about all the stuff in the middle.

I don't often use this technique, but I've been experimenting with it more and more. What I like about it is that it makes the reader focus on the middle of the story sections, which, hey, is most of the book!

Of course, the writer always has some wiggle room. The prediction doesn't have to come true, and a character might be able to change the future. That can also create tension.

The bottom line for this technique is that the reader already knows the end and focuses instead on the road to the end. The skill involves making that road interesting and surprising.

C. She didn't just do what I think she did, did she?

In our discussions, I think Scott and I opt for this method of creating tension the most often. The way I describe this approach is that the writer presents everything in real time. Nothing is held in secret, nor is the ending revealed ahead of time. The tension comes from the possibilities of what might happen, given the circumstances.

I think the skill in this technique is to present enough "supporting evidence" so that the reader can see the possibilities of what might happen. It means having a lot of interesting background and dropping hints along the way.

Will your character have a heart attack? You can create the tension by showing him eating potato chips and bacon all the time. Maybe every time he's in a scene, you show him gasping for breath and cramming food in his mouth. The readers will worry for him, and that worry makes them want to read on and find out what happens.

With my current style of revising as I go, this technique works well because I'm able to polish up the background and find the clues before I move forward. The more sensitive I am to what questions I have as a reader while I'm writing, the better I am at using that information to create tension.

D. Good thing I like Haruki Murakami.

This last approach isn't really an approach, but I'm finding it to be true for a lot of books I read lately. Basically, I think a skilled writer can somehow convince a reader to trust them enough to follow them anywhere. Then, they can present material that might seem random or disconnected, and it creates tension because a devoted fan will wonder how it's all going to come together. They'll read on to find out.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is working that way for me. Partially, I don't get it at all. It seems like a bunch of disconnected pieces and details. But, because I've read another book by Murakami and some of his short stories, I trust him. I know he's good, and I'm willing to go along for the ride.

Maybe this only works if you have a reader that's already committed. But, what I like about this is that, once you have the readership, it really frees you up to experiment with new structures. I'd guess that this could be done even with a new writer, as long as she or he is able to make the reader feel secure early on. Great writing right away can do the trick.

So, there you have it. My take on some different ways to create tension. Do you have other techniques? Do you play around with any of these?

*Wow, I'm rambly today, sorry.


  1. There's the Columbo approach, which the reader knows more about what's going on than the protagonist does. The tension there comes from watching the protag make mistakes and buddy-up with the enemy and things like that. You have to be careful not to make the protag look like a complete idiot, or to at least have them look like an entertaining idiot if they do.

    There's also the Brother Cadfael approach, a modification of the above by Ellis Peters. The reader knows only a little more than the protag, and thinks they know more than they do know. It adds the element of, "Well, at least I'm pretty," and that keeps the reader turning to make sure that they turn out to be right as much as to see what happens with the protag.

    The technique that I've read in too many recent novels that is easily over-played and quickly becomes annoying is the Explicit Tension Tag. Kathy Reichs uses this a lot and even Dean Koontz does, both to (I think) mixed success. This is when the author says something like, "If only I'd known it would be the last time I'd hear her happy voice." It's usually clumsy, but it can work when used sparingly and when it's well-crafted.

    A variation on that is the Almost Explicit Tension Tag. I read this one a lot in cosies, and I won't name any names because even though it's trying to be more subtle, it's usually even more clumsy. "I shut the door behind me, leaving my gun locked up in the house as I walked into the night with a carefree spring in my step."

    As for myself, I probably use a variety of techniques (I hope I do), but a lot of it is a reader-reaction arc like this: "Wait, what was that?" --> "Oh, I know what that was." --> "At least, I think I know what that was." --> "Oh, um, I'm not sure I had a clue... what on earth?" --> "How did I not see that?"

    It's a variation on the shoebox, I think, but I obfuscate the shoebox through a cloak of the surreal.

    I'm pretty good with this in short form, but I'm still mastering this in the long form. It's too easy to leave the reader frustrated.

  2. I just realised that I use an awful lot of option "C." It does seem to be the easiest way to create tension, doesn't it?

  3. Nevets, most excellent comment! Thank you for writing all of this. I'll mention it in the actual post. The Columbo approach is a great one that I've never tried. I'll play around with it.

    S.M. Carriere, Hmmm...I'm not sure anyone is easier than any other per se. But, I'd say that some writers lean more towards one than another, maybe because of the way our brains work. I've used different techniques, and my choice tends to change over time.

  4. Yay for magic dryers! ;)

    I always worry about tension. I'd like to think it progresses naturally in my stories and I usually rely on my crit parterns to let me know if I've gotten the job done.

  5. Wait--what is this "tension" of which you speak?

    Another name for method "A" is the "MacGuffin".
    I use this object called the "Sea Key" that everybody keeps trying to find, starting from the very first scene. An entire war is started over finding it. Doesn't matter what it really is.

    I use another one called "moral imperative" (or "impossible choice". The government comes to my character and commands her to do something against her will and/or morals (become involved with someone she despises), but promises fortune in return.
    So the question going forward is whether she will do the thing or defy the government. Each outcome has peril, so she caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.

  6. @Andrew - See also, Waiting for Guffman. :)

  7. Amanda, the dryer made me far too happy yesterday. With my own writing preferences, I worry about tension far more than I used to. A lot of it is indeed intuitive for me, and the more I write, the better I am at creating it without having to think about it.

    Andrew, thanks for mentioning the MacGuffin! The impossible choice is an excellent one. I've never tried it, but I read many powerful stories that rely on this. It's one of those things that really puts the reader in the place of the character as they decide what they would do themselves.

  8. I dislike the word "tension" here, and will offer up "intrigue" or "fascination" maybe. To catch the interest of the reader, that's what I want to do as a writer and that's what I want a book to do to me: catch my interest. It doesn't have to be throught "tension" or "conflict."

    What I try to do is basically promise the reader that something interesting is going to happen in my story, and try to keep surprising and delighting them along the way. The surprise is--because I tend to write tragedies--that things really will turn out as badly as it looks like they will (which isn't really a surprise because I tell you all along that it's going to happen (The novel I have out on submission is called Killing Hamlet. Guess what happens in it. That's right: some guy named Hamlet ends up dead.)). The delight is--hopefully--a certain felicity with language and my oh-so-arch humor.

    Some day I'll write a proper post about my objections to the phrase "tension on every page." This is not that day, however.

  9. I feel like, though it can be done very well, the shoebox aproach has the danger of being disapointing when it is finally opened. If the secret inside the shoebox turns out to be soemthing predictable like, well shoes or soemthing that has nothing to do with anything else in the story like a shopping list (unless its Northanger Abbey and that's the joke) it just makes me, as a reader, angry when I get to it. When I reach the end of a book I like to feel like everything else has been leading up to it and if all the delicious tension I've been savoring turns out to be irrelevant I am disatisfied.

  10. Scott, I always associate "intrigue" with characters having an affair. No, there doesn't need to be tension on every page, but if one wants to create tension there are ways to do it. It can be mixed in with other ways to catch a reader's interest fo' sho'.

    Taryn, I absolutely agree with you. You set up a big expectation. But, I think some writers are able to meet that and maybe other aren't. It's high risk!

  11. These are some interesting points.

    I think I can say that Doorways is one huge what's in the box story... except, of course, that there is no box...

    *shakes head* Sometimes I wonder why these ideas occur to me.


  12. I normally use option C in my writing.

    I think - and might be wrong here - another aspect of tension is the cliffhanger ending, especially with multiple perspectives. For example, Chapter 1 ends with Charater A in peril. Chapter 2 begins with Character B. Chapter 3 with Character C. Chapter 4 with Character D. Chapter 5 with Character A. So, in this case, because Character A was in peril at the end of Chapter 1, I kept reading.


  13. Davin's right that he and I tend to use the "She didn't just do what I think she did, did she" method (I think of it as, "Did what I think just happened really just happen?"). He and I sort of keep the reader off balance in the same you-have-no-idea-just-how-freaky-people-can-be way. Which is sort of weird because our basic approach to creating stories is so different.

  14. Sometimes I think of storytelling as standing in a field--a meadow say, or a wetland--beside my reader and saying, "I hold in my hand a beautiful, shiny red ball. I'm going to throw the ball as far into the field (or meadow or wetland) as I possibly can, and you and I are going to go looking for it. I promise you that when we find the ball, the trip will have been worth it. We'll stumble across all kinds of neat stuff along the way, too." I promise nothing specific, just an interesting time, just to be good company to my reader.

  15. Love the shoe box technique. I never heard it phrased that way.

    I like to use a combo of that, and also reader trust. Dropping in things that keep the reader guessing, but also allow them to trust the author's lead when they guess wrong. Red herrings, used sparringly, are great tension builders.


  16. Whatever I am going to say, I say mostly as a reader (as I don't think I've figured out a lot of this stuff as a writer):

    I find that when I am reading a book where there is so much 'tension' that I can't wait to find out what happens next, I want to skip superfluous descriptions and digressions and sort of get to the chase. However, there are a few writers (and these are the writers that I end up adoring) who make no such promises of interesting climax, but whom I am just happy to linger with as they digress and explain and show me whatever they want to. And I savor each word. Since there is no climax- I am usually satisfied since I spent a lot of time enjoying the middle. Some writers end up doing both (like Murakami), but they also run the risk of disappointing the reader especially if things aren't adequately resolved at the end. I say misleading, since the reader is given the option of both asking 'what happens next, how will this be resolved?' as well as just going with the flow and enjoying the random digressions. The reader could interpret these bits as having to do something with the resolution. or not.

    So I guess how I read ends up depending on what the writer seems to promise (or as Domey points out- depending on whether I trust a writer).

    I loved how Scott phrased it with the shiny ball and looking for it..:)


  17. I just want to say that I love following the comments left on these posts--very informative and thought provoking.

    I really don't have much to add, but to answer your question, Domey--I tend to really like the shoebox technique.

  18. I'm a shoebox kind of a gal! Awesome. I love this post, Davin. It's really an insightful way to look at tension. I don't believe tension has to be on every single page, but it can surround an entire book, if for instance, an author uses the shoebox approach and the huge question looms forever over over the story until the very end.


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