Writing Techniques: How to Create and Sustain Tension
December 2, 2015
"How do you create tension in your writing?" is a question I am continually investigating. I'm not certain there is a simple formula, but there is certainly a single, unavoidable truth:
If you want tension in your story you have to 1) create it and 2) sustain it.
Creating it is easier than sustaining it. Sustaining tension for me becomes exponentially more difficult the longer I try to sustain it, and the stronger the tension that I am trying to sustain. I am often wrestling with a variety of techniques in order to try to push my tension higher or sustain tension through a longer scene.
I feel like I'm only at the beginning of my understanding of tension, and I still have many secrets to unlock. But for what it's worth, here's my take on how tension works, and some of the ways to create it and sustain it in writing.
Tension is something that exists between, usually between two forces, usually between two forces that are in opposition. I think of tension as either 'push' tension, like the tension in two bodies that are straining against one another until one of them gives ground, or 'pull' tension, like the tension in a rope that is being pulled at each end in a tug of war.
These forces might be two characters with opposing goals (external tension), they might be two opposing desires within one character (internal tension), they might be a character's desire for a goal and the barrier to that goal. There are multiple possible forces, multiple forms of tension. The goodie versus baddie fight is tense because the force of survival is pitted against the force of annihilation. Sexual tension exists when the force of sexual desire pushes against the force of restraint and/or the obstacle to that desire: we want to but we can't, or won't, or musn't, yet, for some reason. The stronger those forces, the more powerful the tension.
Because tension requires two forces to exist, creating tension means constructing and establishing those forces, then clearly expressing them to the reader. Once the forces are constructed, and the stakes made plain, tension will result. The more clearly the forces are drawn, and the higher the stakes are for the characters, the higher the tension.
One of the ways that I often see this done is by embedding the opposing forces into the characters themselves. That is probably one reason why opposites work so well in fiction: the rule follower and the loose canon, the fighter and the scholar, the Machiavel and the Alexander slicing through the Gordian knot. The hero and the villain. The character who sees things in black and white versus the character who sees things in shades of grey. Opposing archetypes are immediately in tension and have the potential to push or pull forever. One or the other must give way, and yet neither will give way, resulting in tension.
Another way I often see tension created is via the drawing of a boundary (as one force) and an opposing force that can then push against it. I'm going to use a big overblown example from a story that I read recently--
"If you touch me, I'll kill you," the character says. Tension is created because a clear boundary has been set, as well as clear stakes: life and death, but also pride, if the character backs down.
This is the same technique at work when Elizabeth Bennett says, "You are the last man on earth I would ever marry." The boundary is clear, and the nature of the force pushing against the boundary, and the stakes: again pride, which is in tension with personal desire and happiness.
Another iteration of the boundary technique, this time used in an adventure setting: Haymitch tells Katniss never, ever to go to the cornucopia, because she'll be slaughtered if she does. As soon as necessity forces Katniss to go to the cornucopia, the scene is tense, because she is pushing against a well-defined boundary, with clear stakes. Goal and threat are in tension.
Tension can also be created by the writing itself. That is, the writing can act as a force on the emotions of the scene, holding it back. "I'll kill you," he said steadily is more tense than, "I'll kill you," he screamed wildly, because the word choice restrains the (obviously) strident emotional content. Calm, strapped-down language acts as a force restraining the force of the emotion, creating tension.
There are lots of things that will cause tension to break or drop out, but for my money the three biggest tension-killers are 1) collapsing one of the opposing forces 2) catharsis, and 3) repetition.
Collapsing one of the forces is easy to understand: it's capitulation, one of the forces giving in to the other. I think it can also happen by accident if one of the forces becomes less clear, less well drawn than the other, so that maintaining forces over time is important for sustaining tension.
Catharsis is the release of strong emotions, which also releases tension. Cathartic acts, such as violence or sex, will let all the tension out of the scene--or even the story--unless you manage to hold the emotion back, somehow, during those scenes. It's hard, although not impossible, to have your character punch someone in the face in a tense way. The tension exists in the moment before the punch, and rises as the punch is delayed, but is released in the cathartic act, the punch itself. The reason why delaying catharsis increases tension is because the force of emotional release is set against the force of restraint, and those forces increase as the cathartic moment approaches.
Romance writers will know that it is equally hard, though not impossible, to have your characters have sex in a tense way--or, I should say, in a way that maintains sexual tension throughout and after the scene--unless something is held back, some type of catharsis avoided. In both sexual and dramatic contexts, sometimes even cathartic words will let out tension--screamed, wailed, flailed, sobbed, exploded, screeched--any words in which emotional release is implied will release tension from the scene.
Finally, repetition kills tension. "If you touch me I'll kill you," is tense, but the second time the character says it, whether to the same person or someone else, it's a fizzle. In romance parlance, a first kiss has more tension in it than a second kiss, unless there is something new about the second kiss.
Romance provides a good case study here because readers are familiar with the way that the romantic narrative is often written as a series of firsts: first touch, first kiss, first oral sex, first penetrative sex, first whichever act remains that we haven't got around to yet. The acts can occur in any order, but repetition will cause a drop in tension, unless there is some other tension in play, some emotional first to substitute for the physical first.
Emotional repetition is an easier trap to fall into than physical repetition, but even deadlier to tension. The second time the emotional note is played it will lack the tension of the first, a reheated dinner. This is the reason why love triangles fall flat when the character oscillates between suitors one too many times, "it's him, no it's him, no it's him, no it's him." It's the reason why unresolved sexual tension goes stale if characters repeat the same moves in the forwards-backwards dance, or rehash an objection when it has already played out the first time.
Because books are usually structured around a character arc or progression from 'beginning self' to 'end self', to hold tension the writer must order every step in the evolution, a series of notes played one after the other, in the correct sequence, with nothing repeated.
In my own writing, I often ask myself: Can I play this moment later? If the answer is yes, then I reserve the moment for later. If the answer is no, then I know that I've found the right moment to play the note.
Because repetition kills tension, one unexpected side-effect is that tense scenes burn through material, fast. A tense face off between characters will burn through backstory like nothing else. And once the material is burned, it can never be used again. So sustaining tension also means creating enough material to sustain that tension.
Probably the best example that I can think of is one that perhaps 0.001% of people reading this will be familiar with, nevertheless: the "salt pans" scene in book five of Dunnett's Niccolo series, in which the books' primary antagonists face off for the first time. Because it is the first time, the antagonists have five books worth of material to burn through and can hurl increasingly tense verbal exchanges at one another for unbelievable lengths of time. The scene incredibly sustains at defcon one tension levels for three chapters, a tour-de-force that I have never seen another author replicate. It was only because Dunnett saved all her material for that one scene that it was even possible.
I remember setting myself the "Dunnett challenge" of extending my tense face off as long as possible towards the end of Prince's Gambit. In that scene, my hero faces down a traitor, and the two have a verbal drag-down match that I wanted to run for pages and pages, and be as tense as possible. I made it to eight pages, at which point I had burned through all the usable material that I had, including a twist I had reserved just for that scene, and some huge chunks of backstory. In the end, I just didn't have enough to sustain any more than that, and I was done.
In this way, it's much easier to write, say, fan fiction, where if Harry and Draco have a stand off, you have seven books worth of Rowling's material to burn, everything from, "You imprisoned my family," to, "You didn't shake my hand on the train." In original fiction, you have to build before you burn.
I think this also shows one of the ways in which tension requires an effort of imagination: the stronger the tension, the stronger the effort of imagination required. It's not only thinking up burnable material, but also what I think of as pathfinding. Pathfinding works something like this:
Once tension is created, there are three choices: break it, sustain it, or escalate it. Breaking it is easy. Sustaining it is harder. Escalating it is harder still. To use an earlier example, the escalating move on hearing, "If you touch me I'll kill you," is to have the other character reach out to touch. But once that is done, what happens next? It's imaginatively very hard work to think of something that doesn't involve catharsis by violence, collapsing one of the forces by backing down, or repetition.
Escalating in this example might be a dead end, something that you can't think your way out of as the author, in which case better to go sideways and choose a path that instead sustains the tension at its current level, picking a path carefully through the dead ends and tension drops.
Tension is therefore reliant on imaginative work, both in creating "burnable" material, and in pathfinding, which requires brainstorming and ideas as you attempt to find a path forward, and avoid tension drops. These creative underpinnings mean that there is not necessarily an easy fix to creating tension, but the more you understand its mechanisms, the easier it becomes to control in your work.
You can find a complete list of the writing techniques covered in the series at the Writing Techniques Master Post.