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Finding the Formula for Tension

So tense, she needs a backrub.
Tension. It's one of those words we writers hear all the time, in articles, in critiques, even in tweets. We need tension and we need conflict in every scene, on every page. And while all of us can define tension, figuring out how to work it in is another ball game.

One mistake I made when I first started writing was assuming that "conflict" was akin to "sh*t blowing up." Likewise, I think a lot of writers, myself included, sometimes relate tension to fighting. Fights are tense. And hey, blowing sh*t up is a good way to introduce conflict - what works for Bruce Willis works for me. But allow me to feign sophistication for a moment, and break tension down into four types.

The tension of the task

The task, or the quest - the journey, the goal, the point of your story and how the characters arrive at the end. What they have to sacrifice along the way. The choices they have to make. The consequences of those choices. Tension, every step of the way.

The tension of relationships

Otherwise defined, in the most elite of writing manuals, as "smexy tension." Well, not always. Sexual tension is obviously a big one, especially in YA, but tension can be present in other relationships - friendships, parents, teachers, zombies - because as the main character (and other characters) grow and change, their relationships change as well. And very often, change leads to tension.

The tension of surprise

The "O HAI" moment, or moments, in your story. Maybe the main character discovers a secret, maybe the antagonist isn't who we thought, maybe the love interest isn't so lovely after all - throw in a twist and watch your characters scramble. Instant tension.

The tension of mystery

Probably the most natural of the four, at least in my opinion. Few things make me feel more tense than not knowing. Imagine you're waiting for an important call from the doctor. And waiting. And waiting. At some point, you don't care if it's bad news - you just want the phone to ring. You want an answer. You want closure - and until you get it, you've got tension.

Enter McClane, baby.
Stirring it in

What's interesting is seeing how master writers work these different types of tension into their stories. I'm sure I'm not alone here; when I think "tense read," The Hunger Games is one of the first books that comes to mind.  

The task? Kill or be killed...yeah, I'd say that's a good set-up for some tension.  

The relationships? Um, Team Gale, meet Team Peeta.  

Surprise? Mystery? Let's see - show of hands of those counting the seconds until Mockingjay? Right. It's pretty clear Collins had all the elements, mixed them up real nice, and churned out one paper-cut-giving, heart-attack-inducing, page turner of a story.

But how about another fantastic dystopian - The Giver? It's tense, undeniably - yet so different from The Hunger Games, so quiet in comparison. But all the elements are there. The task - Jonas' struggle as he sees his world for what it is, and what he has to do. The relationships - it's fascinating to watch his relationship with the Giver develop, and the horror Jonas feels with his parents after a scene in which he witnesses his father performing a task at work - completely heartbreaking, and totally tense.

The tension of surprise is of course a strong one as Jonas learns more about the past, but in my opinion, it's the tension of mystery that makes this such an amazing story. Lowry introduces us to this "perfect world" with the slightest hint of something sinister under the surface, resulting in a chilling, tense and compulsively readable story.

Make your own mix

If you feel like a scene in your own work is falling flat, it's probably lacking tension. But before you start writing another screaming match - or, in my case, blow up a fountain for the hell of it - consider these four ingredients. Task, relationships, surprise, mystery. Are they all in there? Which is most important in this scene? Focusing on just one might help you see a way to introduce another level of tension into your story.
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. This was such a great post. Using Hunger Games to demonstrate that tension can be shown in several ways was genius :) Thank you so much!

  2. Awesome post.
    I too suffered from the blow sh*t up' syndrome lol. I think tension is definitely something that takes a lot of thought and work, but man, it makes SUCH a difference in the story.

  3. I'm working on building tension in my current wip, and it's a tedious process. I use a lot of mystery and thrillers as examples.

  4. "smexy tension." --awesome.
    I've got a problem with my current WIP, it's a YA were no one dies and no one has super natural powers.... so it's currently on a path to NEVER BE PUBLISHED... should I blow up the school on page 1? I think I should. That'll create tension, right?

  5. Tension is a difficult b!tch to master! Thanks for the tips! And now...I'm going to tell you a little secret...tomorrow.

    (not really, but I'm practicing using tension)

  6. Great, great post and something I struggle to include more of, always.

  7. "Team Gale, meet Team Peeta"--hilarious! I definitely need to work on tension in my WiP, and this post is incredibly helpful. Thank you!

  8. This is brilliant!

    Explosions do not make tension any more than daily routines make plot!

  9. Thanks everyone! Candyland, you had me for a second - that was too funny!

  10. I <3 this post. Tension is hard!

  11. Great post! I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to improve some scenes in my WIP, and this gave me just what I needed. Thanks!

  12. I love reading tension, but definitely need to get better at writing it. Thanks for this great post!


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Item Reviewed: Finding the Formula for Tension Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman