#AuthorToolbox 05: cranking up the tension

Via: Daily Post – Tentative & Flavorful

Writing page-turning unputdownable literature is what every author aspires to. A reader can pay few greater compliments than to say a book had kept them up all night – perhaps at the risk of going about their following day with weary eyes but a mind still churning from the residual adrenaline. What motivates a reader to commit to such happy exertion? Tension.


Tension evokes an emotional connection between the reader and the character(s). It compels the reader to assume the interests of the character(s) as his or her own. It may even elicit physical responses in the reader as it coils and unfurls with the progression of the story – quickened breath as the stakes are raised, sigh of relief after the climax has come to pass. However, it is not to be confused with conflict.


I’ll admit that until very recently, I believed tension and conflict to be interchangeable since they tend to work in close association. To be more accurate, conflict often leads to tension but tension is not an inevitable end of conflict. Conflict constitutes of more evident elements within the story, i.e. forces acting against each other to prevent a character from achieving his/her goal(s); tension works in the abstract and can be best defined as the anticipation that is aroused and quieted via the pieces of information that is gradually revealed during the storytelling process. Conflict is a movement within the plot that provides the story with a reason for being; tension succeeds in moving the reader in tempo of the plot by hinting at “possibilities” of what could be. However, while it is ideal that conflict helps to build tension and, thus, the reader’s need to discover “what’s next”, once again, this is only possible where the reader has formed an emotional  connection with the characters, scenes, and situations in the story.


And since tension is build upon the uncertainty and anticipation of what is to come, it may work at various levels – from creating a momentum where the character(s) and reader absolutely share in the emotional undertaking to where the experience is exclusive to the reader – depending on how much information of the story is revealed to either/both the character(s) and the reader. Tension may exist within a particular character (inner turmoil of the protagonist), between characters (information gap resulting in misunderstanding), in every scene (moving the story forward or backward), and in the overall story (central conflict that moves towards a climax and resolution). In some instances, tension may also exist between the narrator and reader to which the character(s) may remain absolutely oblivious (an unreliable narrator perpetuating a deception). However, whatever form in which tension reveals itself to the reader, it is a vital ingredient in storytelling that ensures the author has captured the audience for the duration of the tale and, as authors, we had best know how to use it.


Characters & Conflicts That Matter. The reader is bound to be more invested in the story if it depicts character(s) with whom the reader is able to relate. Also the reader needs to be able to believe in the stakes that are raised when imposing the challenges on the character(s). When the characters are interesting and dynamic and the conflicts are compelling, the reader’s interest is piqued.

Secrets & Hesitations. A common cause for tension between characters in stories is the failure to impart relevant information. If characters made a point of always being open and honest with one another, seven out ten of challenges to their sustainable relationship would probably resolve before even occurring. And we would have no story. So instead, authors cultivate a sense of insecurity that induce character(s) to hide information from their various counterparts. In return, such actions not only spread misunderstanding but also a sense of secrecy that may lead to distrust. When villainy is the objective of the day, a character may willfully withhold information to foil the bliss of the hero/heroine. Such gaps in knowledge within the realm of the tale may lead to the audience to commiserate in the woes of the character(s), motivating them to see it through to the end.

Audience Knows More. Often the narrator reveals facts sooner to the audience than to the character(s). As an outsider, the reader is privy to information that an omniscient narrator possesses but of which not all the characters are yet aware. Reader knows what to expect whereas the characters do not and the tension builds around the uncertainty of how soon will the characters figure out the truth for themselves and how they will react when they do. In such a case, a sense of superiority may also act upon the reader to stick to the story. However, when applying this mode, the narrative must be arranged in a context where the truth would not be as obvious to the character(s) as to the reader.

A Gradual Reveal. While the audience may anticipate situations sooner than the characters in the story, it is also important not to show one’s hand too soon. Pacing the narrative where only fragments of information is revealed at a time can proliferate the reader’s innate desire to solve the mystery.

Forward & Retreat. Even as the plot progresses, scenes may be written to divert the characters from reaching resolution. New challenges may be added even as old ones are managed or the character’s stakes in the outcome may be raised.

The Right Atmosphere. Sometimes it all just boils down to the setting. Tension in the world surrounding the reader may filter into the character’s life. Admit it, walking down an empty corridor in your workplace during the day would feel relatively innocuous when compared to walking down the same empty corridor one evening when you had to stay back late. If we manage to successfully spook ourselves in real life, the same anxiety born of a sense self-preservation exists in the characters we write. On the other hand, in such a situation, which reader wouldn’t want to vicariously investigate the passing shadow of a person in the periphery of the character’s vision?

A Clipped & Monosyllabic Style. An author may also inject tension into the writing style. Using shorter words and sentences may pack a punch to a tense scene that profound and roundabout passages could miss out on. It is the same rule that applies when developing a character who is meant to be foreboding. And since I must, take Mr. Darcy for example. Mr. Darcy was intense and he hardly ever said a word in the initial acts of Pride and Prejudice unless he was forced to and, even when he began to open up a little, it was only to pontificate on topics most essential to his own self-worth and salvation.


However tension is implemented in the story, the author must also ensure there is a balance on when and how much tension the reader is exposed to. Tension must be given opportunity to ebb and flow so as not to overtax the reader. Just as tightening the tension can propel the reader to continue turning the pages, reader must be allowed moments of reprieve to release some of the tension without having to put down the book.



Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!


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  1. #1 by Erika Beebe on September 20, 2017 - 5:45 am

    Excellent points. There is a science to tension 🙂

    • #2 by lupa08 on September 20, 2017 - 7:51 pm

      Absolutely. I think if something is really important work to us, we will monitor the task until we find a pattern to help us develop a formula that streamlines our methods and improves our skills. It’s our natural instinct for growth and survival.

  2. #3 by Kurian on September 20, 2017 - 6:09 am

    Indeed a high standard post

    • #4 by lupa08 on September 20, 2017 - 7:52 pm

      Thank you for reading. I hope it will come of use to you 🙂

      • #5 by Kurian on September 20, 2017 - 11:11 pm

        Yes, for sure

      • #6 by Kurian on September 21, 2017 - 7:53 am

        Lupa, Finally I have my own poem and it’s on stone. Please read my post of sept 21

      • #7 by lupa08 on September 21, 2017 - 9:29 pm

        Sure. Will be right over. And congrats!

      • #8 by Kurian on September 22, 2017 - 4:23 am

        Thank you so much Lupa 😊

  3. #9 by raimeygallant on September 20, 2017 - 8:23 am

    Illuminating! Thanks, Zaireen. I would have said they’re virtually the same thing, then I would have put some thought into it, but I never would have been able to write this!

    • #10 by lupa08 on September 20, 2017 - 7:56 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, thanks 🙂 And, Raimey, after all that I have witnessed of your capabilities, I think you are a certifiable book industry genius!
      But, like I said, until recently, I too took it for granted that conflict and tension are the same.

  4. #11 by Michael on September 20, 2017 - 11:20 am

    Useful thank you

    • #12 by lupa08 on September 20, 2017 - 7:57 pm

      Thank you for reading and I’m glad it will be of use to you 🙂

  5. #13 by Kristina Stanley on September 20, 2017 - 7:57 pm

    Fantastic post. I wrote about Tension and Conflict this month too. Thank you for sharing such in in-depth view.

    • #14 by lupa08 on September 20, 2017 - 8:00 pm

      Yes, after I read your post, I thought we could market it as a combo offer, lol. ;p

  6. #16 by Louise@DragonspireUK on September 20, 2017 - 8:30 pm

    I definitely have to read books with characters I can relate to. I recently read ‘The Girl on the Train,’ and most of the characters actions baffled me rather than made me want to know more. I only really got into the book at about page 300!
    Tension and pacing are so important. I love books that I can’t put down. (Pride and Prejudice was one of them: I loved Mr Darcy 🙂 )

    • #17 by lupa08 on September 20, 2017 - 8:39 pm

      I enjoy mysteries but dark mysteries do take me a while to sink into. I’m more of a Nancy Drew girl than The Girl on the Train. I think you have it right – it’s because I could not relate with the MC on a personal level. I could sympathize as a fellow human but I’m too much of a straight arrow to ever see myself in her position.
      However, I did enjoy The Girl on the Train because I felt the author was really spot-on with the whole Gradual Reveal concept. The mystery element of the story was very… mysterious.
      And Mr. Darcy… I want to read the book or turn on the miniseries to watch Colin Firth every time the name Darcy comes up. But I just re-binged it in August and there’s still so much more to do in 2017. I really cannot indulge anymore ;p

      • #18 by Louise@DragonspireUK on September 22, 2017 - 7:21 pm

        Same. I felt sympathy for Rachel in The Girl on the Train, but I didn’t like that most of the male characters had violent tendencies or the amount of cheating going on. I spent most of the book baffled and wondering if this is what real people are like! I will admit the ending shocked me, I spent most of the time thinking the MC was the killer!
        I love the Colin Firth miniseries too *starry eyes* I think I’m due a re-watch, but I too have too much to do! Maybe I’ll save it as a post NaNoWriMo reward 🙂

      • #19 by lupa08 on September 22, 2017 - 8:31 pm

        I fear reality might be starker than what our naivete presumes but perhaps not as bleak as The Girl on the Train. Although everyday news tells us that those terrifying fates are still some people’s burdens. Woe be them and a prayer for the safety and salvation of all.
        The reward idea is a sound idea 🙂

  7. #20 by L.M. Durand on September 20, 2017 - 9:59 pm

    This is such a great post! Finding the right balance isn’t easy.

    • #21 by lupa08 on September 20, 2017 - 11:47 pm

      Yes, the balancing is the toughest act we have in this circus. But the challenge is half the fun 😉

      • #22 by L.M. Durand on September 21, 2017 - 1:00 am

        😂 true!!!

  8. #23 by M.L. Keller on September 20, 2017 - 10:57 pm

    relatable characters and believable stakes. Yes, Yes, Yes. Without these two, nothing else matters.

    Thanks for sharing

    • #24 by lupa08 on September 20, 2017 - 11:53 pm

      Yeah, those two do seem to be the ground rules of this business. Oh, and a little language skill doesn’t hurt.

  9. #25 by emaginette on September 20, 2017 - 11:04 pm

    Well done. I especially love having the reader know things the rest of the characters do not. Being part of the elite in on an important secret can drive me to the next page.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    • #26 by lupa08 on September 20, 2017 - 11:59 pm

      Yes, that does have a heady undertone to it. Sometimes, when I’m reading, I have to check myself so that I don’t guffaw at the less knowledgeable characters like, “Pfft! How do you not figure out that?”

  10. #27 by Adam on September 21, 2017 - 12:27 am

    A very thorough cataloging of how tension can be cultivated. I think you’re right that almost all forms of tension rely on knowledge and uncertainty. One party knows something that another does not, and this causes the outcome to become uncertain.
    And I definitely agree that tension requires an ebb and flow. Few things are worse than a story that tries to keep the tension at 11 for long periods of time. Inevitably audiences become numb to it. I think the classic example is how a little misfortune invokes sympathy, while a lot of misfortune eventually leads to laughter.

    I think one of the great challenges is finding ways to continue engaging a conflict, and maintaining tension, without stalling or moving too close to a resolution. The audiences requires regular intervals of “something new” that advances the conflict, but eventually that cycle wears thin.

    I’m actually currently working on a book review where a character contemplates committing murder. At first it’s a great source of tension, the need to fight the sympathy, dehumanize the victim, refer to them as “the meat”, but after 2 or 3 times the murders become mundane, forcing the story to find new ways of injecting tension.

    It’s definitely an interesting challenge.

    • #28 by lupa08 on September 21, 2017 - 2:02 am

      Thank you. It’s a good point that you add on the need for balance in the tension. Too much tension CAN make the reader desensitized.

      And I must compliment you on your arrangement of words. One of my favorite things about reading is coming upon interesting and lovely turn of phrases, and two in your comment deserves repeating:

      “…murders become mundane” & “…a little misfortune invokes sympathy, while a lot of misfortune eventually leads to laughter.”
      Although for the latter, I would say it’s more apathy than laughter.

      In any case, I hope I never think murder mundane or look at misfortune with apathy. I wouldn’t want to trade in my humanity.

      • #29 by Adam on September 21, 2017 - 2:11 am

        Thank you, and I wouldn’t worry. There’s a world of difference between fiction and reality.

      • #30 by lupa08 on September 21, 2017 - 2:21 am

        Is there? I don’t know, if media trends are the de rigueur, people move on from misfortunes to misfortunes rather too quickly for my taste. No one has the time to solve anything, just to share and comment on.
        But reality is not the topic for today. See? I did it, too.

      • #31 by Adam on September 21, 2017 - 2:29 am

        Well, if I may, I think some of that is self preservation. One person cannot carry the world on their shoulders. I like to think we all do little things to ease each other’s burdens while also protecting ourselves.

      • #32 by Adam on September 21, 2017 - 2:31 am

        And, as you observe, there are times where we all wish to shuft our focus to lighter things. Its all a matter of finding our own balance.

      • #33 by lupa08 on September 21, 2017 - 2:40 am

        Well said on both points. Ebb and flow of the tension.

      • #34 by Adam on September 21, 2017 - 2:41 am

        We help others, but we also help ourselves, ensuring we can continue to do both. 😊

  11. #35 by Iola Goulton (@IolaGoulton) on September 21, 2017 - 3:03 am

    I find tension hard to write. It’s like humour: I think I’ve got it, but does the reader? Thanks for the tips!

    • #36 by lupa08 on September 21, 2017 - 12:49 pm

      I know what you mean! I am very self-conscious about humor as well. I think I’m rather funny in real life, sometimes intentionally and sometimes because I’m a little clumsy. But when I start to write, I feel as though I’m once again in my school auditorium, writing essays for my exams! And this despite loving to write!
      Which is why this author blog hop exercise helps, I guess. We exchange our knowledge and experience and get to realize there are others swimming in the same murky ravine. I hope the tips help you 😊

  12. #37 by Caroliena Cabada on September 21, 2017 - 6:31 am

    Great post! I, too, use tension and conflict pretty interchangeably, but I see the difference now. Thanks for the great info! 🙂

    • #38 by lupa08 on September 21, 2017 - 9:28 pm

      Thanks for the visit! Happy to share!

  13. #39 by JJ Burry on September 21, 2017 - 8:07 am

    Excellent post! Characters need the tension to be believable for sure! It helps the readers relate to them and realize the true nature of the stakes when they reach the conflict.

    • #40 by lupa08 on September 21, 2017 - 9:31 pm

      Even better, readers find themselves committed.

  14. #41 by Victoria Marie Lees on September 21, 2017 - 9:15 pm

    Great points shared here. Thanks so much for giving the specifics to help us. I think we need both internal and external struggles for our characters in story.

    • #42 by lupa08 on September 22, 2017 - 8:24 pm

      Thank you for reading and glad the post could be of help! Yes, what better than when our readers are able to share in that struggle and then taste the triumph when our characters pull through 🙂

  15. #43 by jrusoloward on September 22, 2017 - 12:58 am

    Tension is so crucial in story development as well as character development. It makes the reader wonder what comes next. This is well laid out and very helpful.

    • #44 by lupa08 on September 24, 2017 - 3:56 pm

      I’m glad you found it so 🙂

  16. #45 by charityrau on September 22, 2017 - 7:37 am

    Great tips. I am in the middle of revisions and this is so helpful!

    • #46 by lupa08 on September 22, 2017 - 8:26 pm

      Thank you! And happy to be of help 🙂

  17. #47 by JJ Burry on October 18, 2017 - 6:07 pm

    Excellent post!

    I’ve been working on the tension in my current WIP, and I see some of the things you mentioned: audience knowing a bit beforehand, characters having relatable stakes…

    I’m still working on believable tension, but I think I’m off to a good start based on your post!

    • #48 by lupa08 on October 18, 2017 - 6:47 pm

      Well, I’m glad if it helps! Thanks for reading 😊

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