So, what is tension? What is it about it that keeps you wanting more? Tension is a formation of words put in such a way that it creates anticipation of the next moment, of finding out what will happen next. Whether the hero will kiss the heroine as he leans in, how a listener will react to a joke, or whether the killer will fire the fatal shot after he raises the pistol. It’s the anticipation that keeps you riveted to the page. Without it, the story or scene drags, and no matter how good it is, the scene will be a slower, and thus, a harder read.
So how do you create tension, and moreover, how do you keep it going? Tension, to me, is about three key elements. Word choice, flow, and pace.
1) Word choice: meaning whether words create impact and thus urge us onward.
2) Flow: meaning not only the order of words and how you put them, whether or not the sentences are easy to read and the concept quickly understood, but also the order of events and whether they flow into one another well.
3) Pace: meaning how fast the events move from one to the next.
All three elements are important. If you lose one, the others lose effect. And they must work in harmony. If you choose words that create impact, but there are too many, or the sentence structure is off, it slows the flow and thus drains the tension. If you keep stopping in the middle of a riveting action scene to describe what people are wearing or create casual conversation, you kill the pace, and thus, you drain the tension again. You have to have all three, working together in order to create tension, and, equally important, in order to maintain it.
Here’s a few examples to show you what I mean. Below are two sample snippets. One is just off the top of my head, not a story, just something I wrote for this exercise. The other is a sample from the first book in my Shadowsword Saga, Children of the Dragon. What I’ve done with the first sample is write it twice, once without tension, then once with. With the second example, I’ve given you three paragraphs from the first version of CotD, written quite a while ago, and then followed it with three paragraphs from the current version of the novel, which is how Chapter one of the book starts now.
1) First example: without tension.
The rollercoaster made it’s way along the track and I held on.
“So, what did you think of Mr Cobb’s hairpiece?” Venessa said.
I laughed. “It looked ridiculous. Went right along with the huge glasses he wears every day to class.”
The rollercoaster reached the top of the hill and over we went, screaming at the top of our lungs.
2) Rewritten, with tension.
The roller coaster inched its way along the track. I held on for dear life, my knuckles whitening with every lurch. The car creaked beneath me, absurdly loud in my ears as I squirmed in the seat next to Venessa. The hill loomed ahead of us and I squeezed my eyes shut.
“Venessa, keep talking. Distract me, will you?”
“S-so what did you think of Mr. Cobb’s hair piece?” Her voice shook.
I cracked open one eye. “A hair piece! Is that the best you can come up with!” The steep incline of the track bent to a sharp curve, only a few clicks from the nose of the car. The rollercoaster inched closer. My stomach tightened.
“Well you were the one who wanted to come on this damn thing! Why’d I let you talk me into this!”
The car crested the hill. Knuckles white on the bars in front of me, I glanced down at the ground far below. The people looked so small, the pavement a slab of hard black rock. I swallowed bile.
“I convinced you?” I shrieked. “It was you’re idea, you idiot!”
The car gave an alarming creak under me. I jumped and my eyes snapped straight head. The car jolted to a stop. I couldn’t see the rest of the track, but I could feel the turn coming. The turn, and the massive drop that would bring my stomach into my throat. My heart hammered. I wondered what the hell I’d been thinking getting into this thing. I squeezed the bars so tight my hands hurt. Any second now...
See what happens? You want to read the second one faster. If I did my job, the anticipation of the rollercoaster dropping form that hill is overwhelming, and the need to see it happen, or not, drives you insane. You may even think the car will fall off the track and send our MC, and Vanessa, to their deaths. Even though we know that never happens, and that roller coasters are safe, the fear is there. Just like it is in the two girls. It’s the tension that gives that feeling. Gives the rush.
So what’s wrong with the first one, it lacks tension. I barely let you see the roller coaster and then the girls start talking calmly about the teacher’s wig. They’re calm, so why shouldn’t you be? The conversation drags away from what’s going on at hand, the terrifying ride. It breaks the flow. And not only that but my words in the first one are low impact. They don’t build suspense or make you worry. Lastly, the conversation is so casual that it slows the pace. In the second version, I used words that create impact. “Made its way,” gives little sense of imagery to the car moving along. “inched along the track” creates a feeling of slowness, but in a riveting way, like a long legged bug crawling up a sleeve, or a killer’s knife about to fall. It builds anticipation. I also kept the flow and pace by reminding the reader of the rollercoaster when the girls were talking, with the creek of the car, her hands on the bars, and I built the sense of fear by having her grip it harder. And I made the argument highly charged, thus adding to the tension, rather than draining it. Even though the girls were still talking about the teacher’s hair piece, it was intense, emotional and conveyed fear.
It’s important to understand tension is not necessarily fear, near death, sex or violence. Like action, it doesn’t have to be breakneck intense. It can be an argument, humorous banter, even a crowded street, if done right. As long as there is something interesting going on, and it creates a sense of anticipation, it’s tension.
Here’s the other example, from SHADOWSWORD. Keep in mind, the first version was written along time ago, when I had virtually no idea what I was doing or how to write. I DO NOT, nor would I EVER, write this way now. The second version is a WIP, and a first draft, so it isn’t perfect, but it should convey the point.
1) Old Version – Chapter One: Children of the Dragon.
It was late in the evening. Darkness had found the world of Alkaron many hours before. The soft breezes that blew across the rugged landscapes of Mantheer brought with them the fresh, salty taste of the sea through the open windows of a house called the Dragon’s Den. The house sat at the edge of a dense forest that wended its way into the mountains, the huge snow-capped peaks of the Northern Alps. The front of the house offered a glorious view of the Great Sea, from which could be heard the peaceful, rhythmic sounds of waves gently caressing the shore. The house was far enough from the busy, overcrowded seaside city of Thane that it might have been hundreds of miles from civilization, rather than an hour’s careful ride by horse or donkey.
The Dragon’s Den was home to a couple known as the Meerhans. At least they would have been known by that name if the people in Thane or those in other areas of the Northern Alps knew the couple.
A cozy, single-storey home, the house was perfect for a slightly well-to-do man and wife who were just starting to make a life together. With ceilings that were just high enough to hint at stateliness, the Dragon’s Den had a thatched roof, a set of double doors at the front, and a wide, sanded front porch. The porch was semi-closed in, with a cushioned wooden swing sitting beside the doors. The exterior of the house, sanded and varnished in a fine coat of dark brown paint, offered the look of a home owned by a man who enjoyed the sweat and rhythm of labor. The architecture also indicated the good money the man of the house made working as a house builder.
Are you bored yet? Eyes glossing over? Why is that? Tension, my friends. There is none of it here. Yeah, I know there are other issues, wordiness, no dialogue, passive voice, it’s all describing, all tell instead of show, not to mention, there is NO HOOK.…I know. 4 years ago, remember. I had no idea how to write. Worse, the whole book was like that, or almost. Yuck, I know. Lol. For those of you who know me, you’ve heard me frequently compare myself to Tolkien. Now you see why. It’s very Lord of Long Windedness – I mean Lord of the Rings. Except without the awesomeness of J.RR. For the record, I love LotR and no offense to Tolkien, but boy, does it DRAG. Ok, ready for the other version?
2) Current Chapter One: Children of the Dragon.
Kyas Danshar’s warning rang in Helena’s head. You’ll be murdered. Tonight. Her shiver had little to do with the slight chill in the air. The memory of her encounter with him heated her cheeks. She hated that dragonspawn, hated the lust he brought forth within her, but she couldn’t ignore the dire tone of his words. She pulled the cloak of her healer’s costume tighter and scanned the street for any sign of Michella.
The merriment of the evening felt subdued as crowds filled the streets in celebration of Autumnfest. Every shadow hid a potential threat. A hulking, hooded man pushed his way through the crowd toward her. Helena tensed. He brushed by with a grumble and headed for the smithy where Kyas had left her.
Irritation warred with her fear. Infernal Dragonlord’s got me paranoid. She drew a steadying breath to calm her nerves. Heightened emotions posed greater danger than any weapon now. She had to stay calm.
Ok, like I said, it isn’t perfect, but see how much better that is? Lots of tension. Yeah, there is a huge hook at the start, and it’s active tone rather than passive, showing not telling…right, but if I had used weaker words, or too many, or kept breaking up the flow with huge descriptions like the other version, the hook and active tone, and even the showing, wouldn’t matter.
Take for example, the first line of CotD current opener. If I had used a low impact statement for the first line like this. “Helena heard Kyas’ Danshar’s words in her head,” versus, “Kyas Danshar’s warning rang in Helena’s head,” the first line would not pull the reader in. The low impact and high impact words are in blue. Yes, the next line in the current write (You’ll be murdered) is a hook, but every moment, every word counts in the opener of a book. Readers cannot be given a moment to consider whether they should read on.
Or take the second paragraph. If I had started heavily describing what Helena was wearing, instead of describing the city with quick, impacting strokes and using words that create foreboding imagery, you would lose interest. Every word I use counts (or I hope it does), and the paragraphs flow, and after the brief description, its back to the actions and Helena, what’s happening to the MC.
So, the first paragraph creates immediate impact with the wording, and builds anticipation of what will happen. The second sets the scene, but quickly, and with words that still carry the impact even when there is no actions or dialogue. I have a good pace and flow in addition to the force of the words. Yes, it is still description, but readers care a lot more about where she is and why than what she is wearing, which again goes to pace. And the big key is, it’s BRIEF. Any longer, or with lower impact words, and it would have turned static. And each paragraph flows from one to the next, with no words or time wasted, no distractions. Word choice, flow, and pace. See?
Yes, there are other factors. If you use powerful wording, have a good flow to your events and sentence structure, and a good pace, but your characters are flat and the plot cliché or boring, the tension will feel like a cheap hook. Readers will read on for only so long before they feel conned. On the other hand, if you have interesting characters, engaging events and a good plot, but you have no tension, the other elements mean nothing, because it slows the story. Tension is what holds all the other stuff together.
So why does tension work? In short, a good story makes us interested, makes us want to read, but tension is what keeps us riveted, and makes us want to read on.
Thank you for inviting me to blog here, Ree. This was fun to write. It’s been a blast. Any time you want me to do this again, let me know!