Tension is required in a story. Something has to elicit an emotional response from your readers and adding tension is the easiest way to do it.
What is Tension?
Tension means to be stretched or emotional or to cause mental strain. Given its clear definition, we can discern that when tension is present in your story—or life—there is an aura of uncertainty and added levels of anxiety surrounding you. It might be like you’re walking on a tightrope or that every little thing will be under heavy scrutiny.
It all seems a little abstract, but we can boil it down to one word: anticipation. It’s that bite-your-nails feeling; the thing that keeps you on the edge of your seat; it’s the thing that draws you in and leaves you in awe.
The thing about tension is that it’s experienced in so many ways and on so many levels. Everyone from your daughter and mother to friends and pets—and pretty much every other animal—can feel the mighty thunder of tension in their lives. This makes it easy to implement, but not necessarily easy to execute well.
You should add multiple layers of tension to pull the right strings. Use every opportunity to add tension and instill a sense of anticipation into the overall story, to keep your readers awaiting the next chapter.
2 Ways to Add Tension
Add tension within the protagonist
From the moment you introduce your protagonist, write in both internal and external conflict. These two pieces work in tandem to create well-rounded and complex characters, and combined with external pressures, you’ve got the makings of a great story.
This could be solely based on the Lie your protagonist tells themselves. It could be one of the main reasons they aren’t achieving their goals and desires.
Make tension between your characters
Whether it’s relationship or family issues, sexual tension or a daunting antagonist, making tension between your characters weaves their stories together. Keeping tensions high pushes your characters along their journeys. It keeps them striving for their goal.
For example, if your protagonist’s main goal is to leave town and never return, then the police might show up every time they make it to the train station. Or a friend tells on them, which causes relationship issues. Or you can dive deeper into why they want to leave.
2-Step Tension Delivery Process
The first step to perfectly executed tension is the promise. Give your readers something to latch onto, something not to forget. Make sure it’s something worthwhile to the story, and that’s relevant to the protagonist.
The delivery is when you make good on the promise you made earlier in the story. It’s where you effectively answer the burning question you brought up, and where your protagonist gets a sense of relief or accomplishment.
The sense of accomplishment might be small like they finally unlocked the locket around their neck, or it might be something massive like they finally plunged the sword into their arch-nemesis.
Keep in mind that tension can last a chapter or the entire manuscript. There’s no time limit, but most tension should be resolved by the climax of your story or the resolution of the third act. This tends to happen naturally because, in the beginning of the story, you’re trying to build and ramp up tensions and conflict; whereas most of that tension is relieved by the climax because most answers have been addressed.
The only time you might not answer all the questions during the climax is if you’re planning a series. Leaving some questions unanswered isn’t unheard of, but you also don’t want to leave your readers feeling like they missed out on something you promised at the beginning.
At the end of the day, keeping things curious gives your reader the just-one-more-page jitters. It’s what keeps them coming back to your story. It’s what keeps things interesting, even when the whole world isn’t falling down around your protagonist.