Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Get that scream!

I've been thinking a lot about Nikki's post on tension. Like she said, a book doesn't have to be an action-thriller to be a page turner. But a book does need tension. It's what keeps the reader reading. It's what makes a story. Without tension we just have mundane life and, let's face it, no one really wants to read about that. Stories need action-- whether it be physical action, emotional turmoil, or mental change.

James Scott Bell, in his book Plot & Structure, gives good advice on creating tension.

1st- Let your readers know what is at stake.

When conflict arises, how will it affect your MC? The higher the stakes, the greater the tension. Otherwise, the reader is left thinking "Who cares?" and will likely put the book down.

2nd- Stretch the tension.

Milk your reader's emotions for all their worth. If you want them to worry, REALLY make them worry. (And, really, a reader should be worried throughout the book, no matter the subject, to see if the MC is going to be able to achieve his/her goal.) Pause a moment and consider all of the options the scene presents. Then ratchet it up a notch. Consider further possibilities.

Here are some things Mr. Bell suggests to think about when you're writing a scene:

  • What is the worst thing that can happen to my character? (physical/outside circumstance or a range of mental stakes... look to the character's fears)

  • What is the worst trouble my character can get into in this scene?

  • Have I sufficiently set up the depth of emotions for readers before the scene? (We need to care about the characters before we care about their problems.)

  • Have I sufficiently set up the danger for readers before the scene? (Remember they need to know what's at stake before they can start worrying.)

Building the tension throughout the story is what really leads to an ending that your readers will likely not soon forget.

This is what I've been thinking about lately. What do you do to build tension?


  1. Great post, Kristy. Isn't it funny that we are so mean to our characters. We have to think, hmm, how can I make my MC's life even more miserable so the end is even more joyous. LOL It's awesome.

  2. I am still learning about tension myself. I'm much better at noticing when someone else's story is lacking tension, than being able to write it. LOL! I have used that tip about taking a situation and thinking about the worse thing that could happen then doing it. It's hard to do that though because we feel so bad for our characters, alot of times I find myself softening the blow, or only making it ALMOST the worse thing that could happen. But that cheats our readers of feeling the tension. So...I solemnly swear to do my duty, to do my worse to character and plot at any given opportunity!! There! I hope that helps!

  3. Kristy! This is wonderful! And I completely agree with you--I think that's why i love Persuaded (my remake of Jane Austen's Persuasion) so much. Because the second there looks like there's hope on the scene--then WHAM! Jane drags us back through the mud again, wishing and hoping Anne and wentworth will really get together.

  4. It really gives us hope for life, though, right? I mean it's like the scriptures say, as great as my suffering, even as great was my joy...or something like that. :)

  5. I loved this post! Tension is one of my new discoveries - it can be so much fun! I used to be a very nice author and would never let anything bad happen to my dear characters, but then only my very best friends could get through my books.

    How do I build tension? I think of what the character is most worried about, and then I have that pop up in the internal monologue at least as often as it would in real life, maybe more. And, I don't let my characters talk themselves out of being worried.



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