Tension: a key building block in stories

A major building block in a good story is tension. Tension can be as simple as surprise at the way the writer has shaped a sentence, conjured an image or set up a series of events that create within the reader a curiosity that will not be satisfied until we find the answer to our initial question, why, what or how.

Tension is the key to engaging readers and to keep them turning the pages of your short story, novel or piece of non-fiction.  There is no reason to keep turning the pages if nothing is happening.

In her article, How to Build tension and Heighten the Stakes, Jessica Page Morrell points out that the stakes have to be high. She quotes Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea stating that, if Hemmingway’s character did not have a lot to prove the story would simply be a story about a man going to sea. Hemmingway’s character has a lot to prove and the stakes are high. That is why we keep reading, because we want him to succeed.

That is the other thing about building tension. The reader needs to believe in the character and want him or her to achieve whatever goal she or he has set out to accomplish. The character has to overcome challenges and that is from where the tension builds.

I have often spoken about the over use of dialogue and Jessica Page also talks about the importance of using dialogue to build tension. Poorly constructed dialogue can flatten a story and become a game of words between two people…one trying to say something cleverer than the next. This does not build tension. So how does dialogue build tension?

Morrell says, “Tense dialogue is a tight, more intense version of real-life speech.”

Intensity is the key word here. When dialogue between two people ramps up in intensity it pulls the reader into the exchange. Again, the reader has a favourite, like a boxing match, and the reader wants that favourite to win. Why? What each says reveals the reason for the tense exchange.

So if a conversation goes on for pages the energy will gradually disappear and the reader will lose interest. Short, concise dialogue has the potential to be very powerful indeed. Even the way a character says one word has the power to make a reader understand someone’s pain, triumph, anger, joy and so on. One word, well placed and well used has enormous power.

Another point Morrell makes is that while readers want the tension to build stomach-knotting increments the reader also needs some time to catch a breath. We want the tension to build but we also want time to take in what we have read. So build into your story just a bit of time to relax…timing for these is crucial. They cannot go on for too long, nor can they be too short but like a comedy act they also need to appear in the right places throughout the script so choose the breathing space carefully.

Writing that builds tension has a number of features and Morrell lists these.

Here is a quick summary:

Hold back key information to the end. Be careful not to toy with the reader while you do that. No reader likes to feel that the writer is holding back key information just to tease him or her. Judicious use of this technique is important. Keep dropping pieces of information into the story so that it builds to a momentous revelation.

The key point Morrell makes which I can not reiterate enough. Make sure your “opening paragraph creates intense curiosity.Enjoy Morrell’s article and to refer to it often as you write. It makes important and salient points.

Source: http://www.writersdigest.com/

 

 

 

tension
story writing