Creating Tension In Your Writing

This week on Hide And Create, Moses Siregar, Joshua Essoe, Jordan Ellinger, and Jaye Wells talk about creating tension.

Maybe it need not be said, but don’t use one of the tools we talked about in this episode, use a bunch of them and mash them together. Take a time-bomb, use short, punchy sentences, be unpredictable, and present lose-lose choices all in one story, and really drag your readers through the trenches before giving them the release of a satisfying conclusion.

A final note. If you fear that your tension is getting stale, the cause is probably that you’re hitting the same emotional beat too many times, and you and your readers are going deaf to it. When that’s happening you have to defeat your reader’s expectations and use an opposing emotional beat. If everything is haha-funny, and you think that your humor is flagging and things just aren’t as amusing, throw in something profound, like Jack Palance telling you the secret of life. If you’ve got action-action-action, sigh, action-action, change it up and throw in a romantic beat or a mystery beat. This is an emotional twist, like a plot twist except it doesn’t affect the story, it affects the mood.

As promised, here is the link to Margie Lawson and her workshops that Jaye gushed over. Also to David Farland who has marvelous things to teach about creating tension and all things writing related.


11 thoughts on “Creating Tension In Your Writing

  1. Great episode. With respect to time I don’t care if you are 15 min. or an hour and a half, I really enjoy your podcast.

    On the question of raising tension I appreciate the device you term a time bomb, though I have heard of it by another name used in the Dramatica Theory material. They called it a time lock…the ticking clock was an ever narrowing window for the protagonist or some viewpoint character to either succeed or fail in obtaining his objective. They paired the time lock with another tension generating device which that label an option lock. I would suppose this would work in conduction with try/fail cycles as options available for success are worked through/discarded as unworkable in pursuit of the goal. Another method which I recall if I picked up from reading Dramatica materials or somewhere else is to induce claustrophobia…narrow the stage where the action must take place. Confine the physical conflict/vicious bone peeling argument to an elevator, a stairwell, a mountain ledge, car, etc. This can further be tightened in some stories by introducing social constraint. Like the same nasty argument as before, but this time restrained and redirected/subverted by the context of a Church service, a family thanksgiving gathering, a birthday celebration, the presence of a cop trying to issue a citation.

    This brings me to the last point of contribution I wanted to add on this episode. Several years ago I read a book on playwriting the name of which I forget, but it left me with two very useful ideas for keeping the dramatic tension in storytelling. The first idea is that all drama is arises essentially from violated ritual. Example. Your routine is to brush your teeth each morning with a nice minty commercial brand of toothpaste. In your ritual morning stupor you load your toothbrush as usual, lift it to your teeth, as usual, begin to scrub…and horrors, it’s not minty…it tastes like licorice…and one glance at the label shows you it is the vegan spawn of some heath food store. You are wordless with impotent rage…you must brush your teeth with this organic tree sap in a tube but you will not like it and there will be an accounting. Downstairs Lovey-dearest has decided to fix your breakfast, but went a little long on the toast and had to scrape off a little char from the edges. Sitting down at the table you take an over crispy bite of your char flavored toast and before you can help yourself have vilified your significant other’s culinary skills, personal hygiene, and national heritage in one grand snark of triumphant vitriol. Without missing a beat she cuts back with an emasculating riposte implying that if you were not such a helpless boy-man you could fix your own breakfast.

    This bitter exchange is the second point which is called the reflector…the argument over burnt toast is not about burnt toast. It is about all the other stuff that has gone wrong in their marriage. The roiling emotions of that disfunction is what pours into and charges the mutual snipping over charred bread. Reflectors allow you to deal with strong dramatic material indirectly rather than in a “spot on” way that would weaken the story rather than give it emotional oomph.

  2. Addendum to the last bit of my longer post above. Consider the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, it was full of reflectors for the venom and malignancy that had consumed the MC’s marriage. They warred against each other by a half dozen proxies: material, anecdotal, and flesh and blood.

  3. The Name of the Wind is essentially one, enormous and elaborate flashback. I suppose it works when there is a large gap that raises questions in the reader’s mind. How did this situation/character status come about? The movie Memento is also sort of a long, receding series of flashbacks that constantly answer and ask questions until an ultimate question is answered. If a flashback happens near the beginning of the book/story, it could serve the purpose of defining or at least shaping the character. At that point in the story it is possible that nothing more than an intriguing trait or circumstance about the character has been revealed, enough to make the reader wonder how/why is the character in this state, which the flashback answers with unexpected revelations and twists. Perhaps the flashback needs to do this, answer questions in an unexpected way that can’t simply be foreseen. But now that I think of it, I can’t come up with a story that uses a flashback well anywhere other than the beginning or where the flashback is basically the story, like in NotW. In anime few things annoy me more, but most of those flashbacks don’t answer a question I have in mind as I’m watching. At least not a burning question.

    Anyway, good podcast.

  4. There will always be exceptions.

    No fiction written in second person was supposed to be able to sell, yet Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney sold, and sold great. It *is* the exception though. There aren’t a lot of writers who can pull of a good story with lots of flashbacks that actually improve the story.

    The examples you have above, Anthony, are really good ones. Same with Slumdog Millionaire, as Robert mentioned.

    If a client has a flashback in a story I’m working on, I ask if it is necessary to the progression of the plot and/or character development. If the answer is no, I suggest cutting. If the answer is yes, then I ask if that same progression could be achieved without the flashback. If the answer is yes, I suggest cutting. If the answer is no, then the flashback was well used.

    Note that this takes for granted that the flashback already fits with the tone of the book, the voice of the writer and doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

  5. For me, this is one of the best episodes so far. You moved through different tips at a good pace, not stopping to debate (or argue) too long over anything in particular, but also not glossing over anything too much.

    (Tangent: While I do enjoy when you guys present different viewpoints, I don’t like when the entire podcast becomes one of you trying to win one of the others over to your viewpoint. It’s GOOD to have different opinions, and it’s good to let the listeners make up their own minds. Arguing the same point over and over is tiresome.There is no One True Path in writing and publishing, as you’ve pointed out before.)

    This episode really made me look at the novel I’m revising right now in a new light. Even though I’d been reviewing every scene with the idea in mind that the tension should generally continue building through the climax (and that each scene should end on a point of tension when possible), you also reminded me that I should be checking on whether each scene sets up a new story question (or hook) before it answers one of the previous ones.

    I agree with previous commenters that I don’t care how long or short an episode is, just so long as you cover the topic nicely. 🙂 Great job, guys! I also love how consistent you are in giving us new episodes to listen to! You make my drive to/from work as enjoyable as it can be.

Leave a Reply