Tension in Fiction Writing
What is tension?
Tension is a state of mental or emotional stress, usually with an element of suspense.
Types of tension:
There are many different types of tension. Here is a short list: horror, mystery, romantic tension, social tension, familial tension, nervous tension, and comedic tension.
How do we create tension?
All scenes with well-written tension have:
1. Something at stake (i.e. survival)—This generally means that there are two (or more) possible outcomes to the main character’s situation. The higher the stakes, the greater the tension.
2. An emotional component—The reader must be emotionally invested in the character. If the reader does not care what happens to the protagonist, the tension is not effective. Therefore, when writing a scene with tension, writers need to appeal to universal emotions that the readers can relate to, such as love, hate, anxiety or fear. Writers achieve this through descriptive language.
3. Descriptive language—Scenes with tension typically have vivid detail and strong verbs.
a. Strong verbs, or power verbs, are verbs that convey meaning in one word and can replace passive phrasing. For example, “He delegated the tasks,” rather than “He told everyone what to do” or “Blood pooled on the floor,” rather than “There was a pool of blood on the floor.” Strong verb choices make the sentences active and direct. Not all sentences should or have to be active and direct, but an abundance of passively worded sentences detracts from the quality of the writing, as the extra words weigh down the narrative.
b. Verbs like see, hear, and feel are actually weak verbs. It is great to appeal to the senses and describe what the protagonist experiences, but this can be done without the verbs “see” or “hear.” For example, rather than saying “I could see a knife in his hand and could feel a cold sweat spilling down my back,” try writing the sentence without “see” and “feel” and focus on describing the knife or how seeing the knife makes the narrator feel. “The knife gleamed in the sunlight and a menacing smile spread across my attacker’s lips. Cold beads of sweat trickled down my back. I’ve only got one chance to make it out of here alive, I realized, one chance, starting now.” The second example is stronger because it tells what the narrator sees, feels, and thinks without explicitly saying so. Sometimes words like see, feel, and hear weigh down your writing. Other times, they are necessary. The word “realize” in the second example might not necessarily be needed, but the sentence reads well with it included. It’s okay to include weaker verbs to add variety as long as there as strong verbs present. An overabundance of weak verbs slows down the pace and reduces the tension. Luckily, making weak verbs strong is an easy fix.
c. Show don’t tell. Tense scenes often use descriptive language to show what the reader is physically experiencing. In thrillers, rather than saying “I’m scared,” there is typically a reference to sweat or the heart pounding in order to illustrate fear. Romance writers also use sweat and a pounding heart to describe what the narrator feels when being kissed. In this situation, it is meant to illustrate love. The same bodily responses can be used to fit multiple situations.
d. The descriptive language in tense scenes typically focuses on what the character feels. Is his chest tight? Do his fingers tingle? There is less emphasis on describing the setting because this slows the pace of the story down and reduces the tension. Some writers intentionally add in descriptions of the character’s surroundings to slow down the pace. Describing the setting is not a bad thing. However, one must make sure that the descriptions are relevant to the story. If it is a scary story, describing the shadows dancing on the wall could add to the suspense. Noting that the main character’s best friend is wearing track pants does not—unless of course, the track pants are an important detail later. Choose your details carefully.
Remember: Tension must build!
How to break tension:
· As noted above, the tension can be slowed down or “broken” by taking the reader out of the immediate action. Focusing on the scenery, for example, might all the reader a moment to process. One could then oscillate back to the tense moment. A pause in the action not only allows the reader to breathe, but also keeps them wondering what will happen next.
· Another way to break the tension is to switch the point of view. If there is more than one narrator, switching between them at a tense moment, allows for pause and increases the suspense. If the story is in third person, focusing the reader’s attention on another character has the same effect.
· One could also insert a scene or chapter break to build the tension. Use a cliffhanger. Get your reader to want to turn that page. It’s similar to how TV shows use “To Be Continued…” They end the show right at the climax, just before we learn our hero’s fate.
The Reaping Scene in the Hunger Games and What it Teaches us about Tension
I played the audiobook version of chapter one and the very beginning of chapter two. I asked students to write down examples of descriptive language as they listened. We then talked about the effect of ending chapter one with a cliffhanger, namely that Prim, the narrator’s sister, is chosen. The second chapter starts with a brief anecdote. Katniss recalls a time when she fell from a tree. This serves as a brief pause in the tension. However, the tension escalates when Katniss compares the feeling of falling out of a tree to hearing Prim’s name be called.
Prior to showing the movie clip, I asked the students what they thought of when I said “holding hands.” I got a variety of answers all revolving around dating. We had spoken about how physical responses can mean different things depending on the context. Katniss and Prim hold hands to show support. It illustrates their worry and fear as well as their sisterly love.
The film also shows tension through contrast. The fact that Effie had a pink wig confused my students when we read and they got a real kick out of seeing her in the movie. Her attire shows wealth and contrasts to the plain clothes the kids wear. Katniss takes a bath and does her hair to look nice for the reaping, but her wardrobe shows she is poor. When she gets made over as part of being a tribute, she is given more elaborate garments. Effie’s “happiness” and the sober nature of the children in the crowd further illustrate the contrast and this adds to the tension, especially when the children all hold up their three fingers as a sign of solidarity and support.