7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writing (Part One)

After a strong opening, stories can bog down: readers become bored, and they might put our novels aside. Here are some things we can do to add tension in our writing so this doesn’t happen.

Ask a question that demands an answer.

Mysteries do a good job of this. Who killed John Doe? A romance does the same thing. Will Mary find Mr. Right? General fiction often asks what’s going on here. This can work as long as you do it well and don’t confuse the reader.

You can boost a scene that seems to drag by giving your MC (main character) a question that she must answer by the end of it. Example: Elizabeth has need of a babysitter so she can go for an important job interview. The scene opens with her calling her next door neighbor to ask if she will do her a favor. You can fill in the scene with all kinds of delays, but by the end, Elizabeth gets her answer: yes, no, or my favorite, yes, but. The “but” comes with a complication. The neighbor can sit with little Sally, butfor only two hours. Elizabeth MUST be home by 4:00 p.m. (Can’t you just feel the tension mounting?)

Increase the stakes

Are you too soft on your characters? By this I mean, what happens if they fail? What if Elizabeth doesn’t get her job? What if she doesn’t make it home by 4:00 to pick up her daughter? Maybe you need to raise the stakes.

Make failure:

Life and death

Happiness and despair

Bankruptcy or plenty

Disaster, ruin, end of the world

If the secret is discovered? Divorce; children taken away; lose the family home, the family fortune, good reputation, love of a lifetime, highly valued career. Perhaps the MC will be forced to live on the streets, etc.

World (or a loved one) will be destroyed if character doesn’t achieve goal.

Create a deadline

Deadlines are effective in raising the tension and can be set for the overall novel or for scenes.


Example:         Must make it to town by 6:00 a.m.
                        Waiting for an important phone call and battery is running low on cell phone.


Example:         MC has three camels and the first one just died.
                        MC has to find three jewels in order to open the door to the hidden treasure.
                        MC has two candy bars and three children who want them.


Example:         MC has $6.00 to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother and they cost $12.00

MC needs $10,000 to save his ranch from foreclosure.

                        MC’s credit card is maxed out.


Example:         MC has six miles to go and the gas tank is on empty.
                        MC is running out of food, water, or fuel.
                        MC is making pancakes and doesn’t have enough flour.


(Cont’d. next week)




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