January 16, 2011

Three Minutes to Better Writing: Tension

Tension is the key element in storytelling.  Without it, a story has no urgency or suspense.  Tension is what keeps the reader up past their bedtime, flipping pages. According to Gary Provost, tension is "a cord or series of cords that stretch across every paragraph you write".  

Tension is produced by the conflict in your story.  How?  Because conflict creates uncertainty for your characters.  Will the young soldier die trying to save his comrade? Will the lady lose her reputation? How will an unemployed single mother take care of her children?  Tension is the "anticipation and dread" factor that readers want.  Your readers will anticipate the outcome of a character’s actions and dread what this will mean for the character as the story continues.  Also, creating tension means having strong opposition to your main character.  Strong enough so that the reader will be interested in how your hero finally wins.

The stakes for your characters must be high to create tension.  The higher the stakes, the more tension you create. Personally, I think life and love are the two most powerful “high stakes” because everyone can relate to them and those two are used most often in fiction.  Love at stake is universal in romances. You can have characters whose home is at stake, success is at stake, health is at stake, etc.  You can combine stakes but whatever is at stake for your main character, it must be significant to that character in order to produce tension.

Once you have your strong characters and your high stakes woven into your plot, look to your own writing to help create tension.  Use “tense” words.  Gary Provost suggests going through your manuscript and looking for places you can create tension by using:  Words of delay.  Words that imply fear.  Words of danger.  Words of urgency.
Below is an example using Provost’s word choice suggestions:

Original: "She stopped at the sight of the broken gate, its rusty hinges damaged.  His shoe had left a print in the soft earth.  He had come this way. Had he found the vault? She hurried past the broken gate and moved into the shadows. It was important she reach the vault before he learned the truth about her."

Revision: "She froze at the sight of the broken gate, its rusty hinges ripped loose. His shoe had left a deep print in the dark earth.  He had come this way. Had he found the vault? She rushed past the broken gate and stole into the shadows. It was critical she reach the vault before he discovered the truth about her.

To summarize, heroes/heroines with high stakes at risk, facing stronger opposition and continued conflict will create the kind of tension that will keep your readers holding their breath as they turn the page.

Thanks to Anna for having me today and thank you for stopping by.   If you're looking for a short fun read with a tall, dark and handsome rancher, a dazzling heroine, a few famous outlaws, a heartless bad guy, some steamy scenes and some suspenseful moments, you'll enjoy Almost An Outlaw! Links are on my blog.


Katherine Bone said...

Hey Patricia! I'm reading Almost An Outlaw now and I can say honestly that you know how to ratchet up the tension.

Very good blog post!

Taryn Kincaid said...

I love the sample paragraph and he revision. Shows so much about how to add tension! Nice post!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Patricia. Thanks for hosting for me today. Great post and good examples.

Melissa Murphy said...

very informative post and great examples!

Thank you,
Melissa Murphy

Kathy Otten said...

Loved your post. Very helpful. Now I want to go back to my WIP and amp up the tension. Thanks.

Cornelia Amiri said...

Great blog post. The example you gave on using tension words was absolutely fantastic. And the book sounds marvelous.

Lauri said...

Great post! The contrasting paragraphs are a great example.

Laurie P. said...

Great post! I especially loved the sample paragraph and revision. It showed me how a few minor tweaks could add major impact. I just downloaded Almost an Outlaw to my Kindle. I'm so happy it's available for Kindle readers too!


Elise Warner said...

Revision, revision, revision. Good job, Patricia.

Alyson Reuben said...

Awesome post, Patricia! Loved how you talked about adding words of urgency (w/ the examples you gave). The right words make all the difference.

Loreen Augeri said...

Great post. I loved the example. It showed how just the change of a few words can make a big difference.

Keena Kincaid said...

Hi. These are great tips and the sample paragraph really brought it to light. Thanks.

beth kery said...

Nicely done! I think it helps a lot to see the prior and then the more tension-filled post.

In my opinion, a tension-lacking story is like reading someone's stream of consciousness. It's fascinating if the person is.

If not, it's like doing my laundry.

Thank you, and I'll pass this on!

Anonymous said...

Nicely explained! Thanks.
Joy Held
Writer Wellness, A Writer's Path to Health and Creativity
Who Dares Wins Publishing

Patricia Preston said...

Hi Everyone! Glad you have found the post helpful. I have long been a fan of Gary Provost and recommend his writing books.

Margaret Tanner said...

Great blog.
The sample paragraph and revision was very informative, altering those few words certainly made the story stronger.



Caroline Clemmons said...

I'm adding Almost an Outlaw to my TBR list. Thanks for sharing.

Patricia Preston said...

Thanks, Caroline!