Don’t Stress Out over Tension

Hey guys, another fiction post today. I’m starting to wonder if I should keep my fiction and non-fiction/freelance blogs separate and make another one for fiction writers, but since I have both journalist/freelancers and novelists/poets following along I’ll probably just keep them all here on a general writing blog until someone complains. Haha. 🙂 

That being said, I want to say something about tension. 

It’s said over and over that escalating tension is one of the key elements to a plot. Scratch that, escalating tension is a plot. Without escalating tension you have no plot, and if you’re reading most blogs and books these days you’ll read about all sorts of ways to add tension to your novel. 

If you’re writing and you’re trying to figure out how to add tension and raise the stakes in your story, you might think this is something your character has to do or be involved with. In fact, tension is often thought to be very character-related. 

But I’d like to pose an idea. 

Tension is not necessarily something your characters have to experience. It’s something your readers have to experience. 

Therefore, tension can simply be not knowing what’s going on. 

I hate to use Stephen King as an example again because I feel like that’s all I ever do, but he is the master – or a master – of fiction writing, and his work is good for enjoyment and an education on writing at the same time. 

If you read a King book, or even watch one of the movies based off his stories, you’ll often notice that there really is no visible tension going on, most of the time. The tension is the not knowing. 

“What’s going on with this town?” “Wait why is that girl so weird?” “Seriously where are all the kids?” “Wait what? She’s a zombie weird lady, too?” “Okay SERIOUSLY what’s going on?” 

It’s escalating tension, to be sure. But it’s tension that the reader feels by not knowing. And tension the reader feels is all you need. Because that’s what’s going to keep a reader engaged. 

The mystery genre has perfected this. Most of the time there isn’t anything visible going on as far as tension is concerned, other than possibly “When is the serial killer going to meet the victim?” – and impending meeting/chases can be tension, too. But the main tension is who dunnit? Not knowing who did it is the underlying tension that keeps you reading even if the main characters are sitting in an office going through paperwork. 

So, that’s my short piece for today. I think tension can be overdone and writers often try too hard to add tension where it wouldn’t normally be. This isn’t Days of Our Lives – it’s a story, not a soap opera. You don’t have to have a love triangle – or dodecahedron, whatever – and 17 deaths within 30 seconds and pit every force in the universe against your main character in order to escalate tension. All you really need is to leave questions in the reader’s mind. 

So – don’t stress out about tension. Instead of trying to give and create tension, just hold your cards back. Leave a bread crumb of clues and hints at the truth and let your readers follow them. Giving too much away up front is a bad idea – it ruins tension. 

Tension, as I see it, is as simple as “And then what happened?”

(This is also why I feel it’s best not to know everything about your story going into it, because if you know you’ll write like you know and give everything away. But that’s another topic for another day.) 

Hopefully this helps you look at tension a new way.

Until next time – happy writing!

 

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