Turn the Screws and Make ’em Squirm

I critique a lot of stories by both experienced and novice writers.  While I get to see a lot of stories that I think work, much of what I read doesn’t.  Often the story has a clear conflict, well-developed characters, and an interesting setting, but it lacks that quality that pulls me through me it.  It lacks—for lack of a better word—tension.  This is probably the most common problem I see.

So what do I mean by tension?  Tension is what results from conflict, and it should be maintained and increased throughout the story.  Tension is generates from complications that make the protagonist’s problem harder to resolve.  These complications can result from specific plot points (e.g., more bad guys arrive), through character depth (e.g., a character flaw), or even from character interactions (e.g., what would the main character’s mother think?).  Tension doesn’t have to mean non-stop action.  I think some of the best tension results from the main character’s internal conflict, or those “quiet” moments between two characters.

As I see it, the trick is to constantly increase the tension throughout the story.  Every scene—every page for that matter—should have tension in it, and with each passing page and scene, that tension should never go down, at least until the story’s climax.  While it’s okay, and perhaps advisable, to periodically give the reader a short respite by holding the tension steady for scene, don’t wait too long to start cranking the ratchet again or you’ll risk losing your reader.  Even a “calm,” reflective scene can end with an uptick in tension to pull the reader into the next scene (e.g., a decision to act is made).  All this tension should then be released with the story’s climax.  If the tension was high enough and the resolution is a good one, the ending will be satisfying.  In my opinion, flat endings are often the result of a lack of tension in the story.

When I’m writing (and again when I’m revising) a story, I check to ensure that each scene not only pushes the narrative forward, but that it also adds complications for the main character that increase the story’s tension.  If a scene doesn’t do both, I’ll either re-work it until it does or I’ll cut it.  I’ve cut some of my favorite scenes from stories because they failed to do both, but in the long run, I think the story has been stronger for it.  After all, it’s ultimately about the story, isn’t it?

About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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6 Responses to Turn the Screws and Make ’em Squirm

  1. ericjbaker says:

    Good advice. I think it’s hard for writers to feel tension in their own stories, so it’s important to have other writers read one’s work. Not always pleasant, but usually enlightening.

    • Eric, I agree writers are often poor judges of their own work, but I also think writers can develop the skill to see increasing tension in their stories. While I still have a lot of room to improve, I know I’ve gotten better at it, and I ask myself with each scene: “What I am trying to do here and how does this up the stakes for my main character?” I think every scene up to the climax should try to do something to add additional complications and/or to up the stakes for the main character, even if it’s only a little.

      • ericjbaker says:

        Thanks. I’m going to focus more intently on that with my current project. Like you described above, I want to maintian the intensity without consistently resorting to violence.

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