Tension: The Secret to Storytelling Tension Series Part 1

Fiction is magical: that’s something I’ve always believed. When we read fiction, the real world falls away. The characters are made up and yet we care deeply about them. Their problems worry us to the point that we can’t bear to stop reading until they’re resolved. The insights gained in a story can lead to changes in our real lives. We don’t feel that way about a simple description of a character or a list of issues he or she faces or a collection of insights delivered as platitudes.

Tension is the secret: the storyteller’s deepest magic.

Tension is your story’s beating heart: the conflicted character, the crucial stakes, the daunting obstacles, the pressure of time, the risks that should never be taken, the mysteries that need to be solved. Tension refers to both the strain and the harmonic balance of opposing forces. It can be as subtle as the awkward silence between a husband and wife who are keeping secrets from each other. The existence of tension can transform the ordinary into the compelling.

I would go even further: tension is fundamental to how we bring readers to care about our characters and what happens in our stories.

Readers absorb tension – actually feel it on a visceral level – and carry it forward. Once they sense it, they listen hard to hear more. Readers are affected not only by the tension being experienced by the main character, but can also feel tension directly because of things of which the main character is unaware. When we talk about tension, we’re talking about both an effect that the writer creates on the page and a way that the reader feels in response to that effect.  Your ultimate goal is to generate tension in the reader. Tension in the reader sustains the channel of emotional engagement.

Imagine a scene in which a woman listens behind a door as cold air slips through a crack and brushes over her skin, raising hairs. Reading that, we can physically feel it, and share in the apprehension that comes with that sensation. Tension speaks to the deep places in our unconscious where we store emotional reactions and sensory data. Where we have an almost universal response. When tension works in a story, we feel it: we’re tense. And not only do we feel tension when we read it; we, as writers, should feel it when we write. The writer’s own experience of physical tension is the best indication that readers will feel it too. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.)

Once tension is established in a story, it reverberates under the surface, akin to the music carrying mood in a movie, with this distinguishing feature: we carry the music of tension in our guts. The writer is both the composer and the conductor. Tension arises from what you put in your story – the content – and from how you tell it. Even word choice makes a difference, sentence length, rhythms, the mesmerizing music of language. You can build tension up or quiet it down, blending the different sources like the music of instruments.

Orchestration gives us a way to think about tension that takes into account its complexity and importance, as well as its nonlinear aspects. Some tension builds in a progression, but other tension can come in from the side. A multiplicity of possible sources exists. Tension can and should come from character and plot, but that’s not all. Even the little things can contribute: how close your characters stand, whether they touch, how harsh the lights are. Because of the way tension resides in our guts, a range of sources can contribute. Tension can augment tension. But some kinds of tension may undermine others; it’s not a complete free-for all.

As writers, we need to cultivate the ability to think on more than one plane. To experience our work as readers, at the same time as creating it as writers. To use our bodies as well as our brains. Orchestrating tension means being aware of the physical experience of tension – like a reader – at the same time as generating the effect of tension – like a writer. Tension is a place where the mind and body meet.

The magic, in short, is in you.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Next month: Tension Begins With Character.