I’ve reviewed several stories for other writers recently, and it’s gotten me thinking about tension. I’m not a lit major and I don’t profess to know anything about the scholarly side of writing. If it wasn’t taught in English 101, I likely don’t know much about it . . . but back to tension.
Tension isn’t the same as conflict—at least I don’t think it is—although conflict is important to tension. For me, conflict creates the wider arc of tension in a story. It’s what the story is ultimately about and what, with its resolution, gives me (the reader) that sense of closure and relief.
Tension, on the other hand, is what drives me through each sentence, paragraph, and page. Tension in life may not be a good thing, but tension in fiction is essential (even in literature that doesn’t have the typical “conflict” structure). Tension should be on every page and in every paragraph if possible. If the tension can increase with the page count, that’s a bonus.
So how do you get this tension? Not an easy question to answer, and I won’t claim to have the answer. I think this type of tension can be achieved in several different ways. The situation or setting can provide tension. For example, the “dark and stormy night” versus the “warm comfortable bed,” or characters placed in diametric opposition, whether it’s in their goals, deeds, or even their physical description. Tension can come from word choice used in descriptions, or through the choice or delivery of dialogue, and character actions, especially subtle actions that illustrate an unexpected, maybe unsettling, response (e.g., a kindergarten school teacher who smiles when (s)he sees a puppy being abused by the neighborhood bully).
Tension can potentially be found anywhere, and if fostered in a story, can really propel me forward—it’s what puts the page-turning in a page-turner. And if done well, I don’t even notice it’s happening, which to me, is the sign of a writer skilled in the craft.