Tension in fiction keeps us reading because we crave resolution. Too much, too soon, and readers may not bother to finish. Too little, too late, and readers may get annoyed. The art of storytelling is all about building tension while allowing just the right amount of release, until a climax in which the most significant tensions reach their zenith and then get resolved.
The release of tension is especially important in six key areas:
Readers love characters who are able to laugh at themselves or at life in spite of its challenges. Humor in the voice allows for the release of tension, while increasing the readers’ sympathy for and investment in the protagonist, which in turn can increase the tension if the protagonist remains under threat. Humor in the voice can also be indicative of character. It can reveal vulnerability. In the face of tough problems, it can be brave. Voice is capable of conveying more than one emotion – even conflicted feelings. Voice gives writers a unique opportunity to release and build tension at the same time.
2. Scenic Counterpoints
Moments of happiness or humor can work to release some tension, as well as to augment it. A happy scene that comes out of an important relationship can act to increase the stakes. A funny situation that gives us a much-needed break can end up making things worse. (See Have Your Cake and Tension Too.) To place these moments, you should go with your gut. If you need a breather, then chances are your readers do too.
3. Chapter Endings
Readers also like to see the main character make progress. Chapter endings can be an important place to signal this, at the same time as carrying forward enough tension on new or unresolved issues to keep building the overall tension. You always want to carry some tension into the next scene. If you ever have problems with a new chapter or scene feeling flat, a good trick is to go back and build up the tension in the previous one.
4. Midpoint of the Plot
The release of tension at the midpoint illustrates what may be the most subtle and essential way to relieve tension in fiction: the move from inward tension to outward action. At some point, the protagonist brooding isn’t enough – we want to see him or her do something. Taking action in fiction, as in life, is the truest expression of how much someone cares. At the midpoint, we’re usually referring to the moment when the protagonist shifts internally from resistance to the beginnings of change, but when there’s still a lot to do in terms of action to resolve the goals of the plot. From the midpoint on is usually when a book is hardest to put down, because readers want to see where that shift from inward tension to outward action leads.
5. Period of Grace
The protagonist’s internal shift at the midpoint from resistance to the beginnings of change also makes possible a special kind of scene, often referred to as a period of grace. We get a glimpse of what might be possible for the character if only he or she would be willing to change and grow. You might be concerned that this would reduce the tension too much, and it can if the character has nothing further to accomplish, but if instead the biggest change has only happened inside the protagonist and he or she still has to take action to fulfill the goals of the plot, then a period of grace will actually increase the stakes and magnify the tension.
6. Climax and Resolution
The climax of a story is where the central conflicts come to a head and get concluded, not simply in terms of external events, but also as the fruition of the changes realized inside the protagonist. (See Tension Begins with Character.) The basic test of story is whether the protagonist achieves something in the end that he or she was incapable of achieving at the start. The most gratifying release of tension occurs when the internal change we hoped for brings about the external resolution we most desired.
This is also where we discover that “resolution” doesn’t mean that everything needs to be perfect, but just that the imbalances that drove this story have been righted, and we find ourselves at the beginning of something new.
My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Last month: Dynamic Tension in Plot.