Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Gondolier's Riting School: Tension!!!

OMG, Angst!!!!

Creating Tension

in Your Story

Dear Writers:

Do your readers leave reviews that go something like this?

Ah! OMG, I can’t take the heartfail plz tell me that it will get better soon because I’ll have to stop reading if it doesn’t.

This is a good thing, trust me. If you have readers telling you that your story has them turned inside-out with angst, heartfail, whatever word they choose to use, you have effectively sucked them in. What the fanfic world often incorrectly labels as “angsty” or “heartfail” is really just a story with well-developed tension. A story that has energy and vitality uses effective tension. It drives readers through chapter after chapter because they want a cathartic resolution to that tension.

The minute you start having readers tell you “What a pleasant little story,” you may have cause to worry. It sounds like a compliment, but what this feedback usually means is your story is not memorable, or exciting…it’s dull.

The First Paragraph

When I was a fiction editor for a literary journal, I read hundreds of short-story submissions, everything from published authors’ pieces to prison inmates’, to kids’ just starting their undergrad writing degrees. In fact, I never even glanced at the introduction letter to see their past successes because I wanted that particular work to speak for itself without outside influence. And if the story didn’t grab me after the first page, I slipped a rejection note in their return envelope. It may have been grammatically correct, a unique setting or subject matter, or experimental as hell, but if it didn’t hold my attention, it wouldn’t hold our subscribers’ attention, either. The rare stories that sucked me in to the point where I suddenly found myself at the end, however—those went into my pile for a second review.

The trick to immediately grabbing a reader is to create instant tension (aka conflict) in your first paragraph. While it’s tempting to give a flowery, poetic introduction with a unique setting, save that for the second or third paragraph. Here are some examples of well-written, attention-grabbing first paragraphs, taken from completed Twi-fics:

“The thick scent of pine and salt water assaulted my senses as I opened the door into a beautiful, familiar room. Tiny white lights danced across the ceiling and the walls, casting a delicate sheen on the floorboards. A full moon radiated its steady stream of white light through the windows, giving the room an effervescent glow. I inhaled sharply. Memories of this place, this room, clouded my mind. I thought of him, as I always did. I thought of his painfully beautiful face, his crooked smile, his tousled bronze hair. I felt a tightening in my chest, a reaction to the memory—the absence—of him.”

(Same Time Next Year by socact)

In her first paragraph, Socact immediately raises these questions in the reader’s mind: Why is the room familiar? Where is the narrator? Who is “him” and why is he absent?

“James is an ugly motherfucker.

He is the manifestation of ugly, and yet, he is very tall.

My first confession: tall men turn me on…”

(Sin and Incivility by Pastiche Pen)

Pastiche Pen grabs the reader’s attention with this playful, gritty conflict: James is ugly, but the narrator is turned on because he’s tall. So what will the narrator do with James?

“I’m beginning to think this might have been a huge error in judgment.”

(Port Angeles Players by WriteOnTime)

Short and sweet, the reader wants to keep reading simply to find out what the narrator’s error is.

“I exited the lecture hall still in a daze, daydreaming between the Sturm und drang and the more mundane preoccupation of needing to wax my legs that night, when I found myself walking along a blonde girl I didn’t particularly like.

“You‘re Isabella, right?” She asked while brushing back her wavy hair and moving her hips more than it was physically necessary for a female to walk, all while shaking the almost nonexistent miniskirt.”

(The Way Back by caracol)

Nothing screams instant conflict like the appearance of a gorgeous, skanky girl whom the narrator doesn’t like. Now, what is the narrator going to do about her?

“I heard the footsteps falling on the softened earth long before they reached my chamber. I was irritated with the interruption, as I was sure I had almost achieved true unconsciousness that time. My mind shrieked with the curses of a thousand ancient tongues.

But my curiosity was always stronger than my fury, which was the reason I still remained whole. When the others of my coven had simply given in to death, my morbid curiosity kept me alive and bound to this world in a way that would never be severed.”

(Breaking Ties by EclipsedbyJacob)

With this dark opening, EclipsedbyJacob raises a ton of questions: Why is the narrator so bitter? Who is interrupting the narrator, and why? Why is the narrator the only one of the coven left alive? And where the heck are we?

Maintaining Tension

So you’ve written a ball-grabbing first paragraph. Here’s the hard part—maintaining that tension throughout your story.

There are so many ways to create tension in your plotline, but they all boil down to pitting one story element against another. According to the Stephen Minot, the author of Three Genres, these are the most common ways to produce tension:

  • Conflict. This is the most easily identified. It can take the form of one against one, an individual against a group, or a struggle against nature.
  • Internal Conflict. Although often a subtle form of tension, it can become a dominant concern for readers.
  • Mistrust. Suspicion can be one-sided or mutual. It can damage friendships, family relationships, or even a marriage.
  • Foreboding. The staple of horror flicks (often enhanced by ominous music), it can also be used subtly in sophisticated fiction.

Writers don’t necessarily use just one or the other of the above forms of tension. Often, the different forms naturally piggyback each other, turning a boring story into something dynamic.


Conflict’s most basic approach is hero (protagonist) vs. enemy. We see this quite a lot in plays and films because the audience isn’t truly allowed into the protagonist’s thoughts in those mediums. In fiction, however, conflict becomes more complex. Writers have to be careful not to allow a conflict to drown out their other style aspects that add depth to a story, such as characterization or theme. If you have a well-developed conflict but are lacking character and theme development, your readers won’t emotionally connect beyond the immediate adrenaline rush and the conflict will soon grow old and gimmicky.

So how do you keep a simple hero vs. enemy conflict fresh and interesting?

First, devote only half the plot to the conflict itself, and the other half to developing your setting, characters, style, and other intricacies that add that layer of vibrancy and emotion to your writing.

mute the violence, sex, and other carnage that might be tempting to play up in a conflict. If your story is chapter after chapter of sex scenes and violence, readers become desensitized and even find themselves skimming the hackneyed action in favor of something substantial. But if you use only one or two strong scenes of the above, it makes those scenes more poignant, leaves your readers tense and aching for a little bit more—even after the final sentence. And that is what you want to achieve with a well-written story—an audience wanting just one more page.

Third, incorporate slightly comic details to lighten the heaviness of a conflict. Even Romeo and Juliet, one of the great love tragedies, employed comedic elements like Juliet’s nurse. Comic details woven throughout a story make the tension more realistic and less melodramatic.

Basically, conflict is a great tension maintainer when used with restraint.

Inner Conflict

Fiction writing is a perfect canvas for developing inner conflict. Inner conflict is created when a character’s (usually the narrator’s) mix of emotions clash with each other. Love vs. hate. Resentment vs. attachment. Loneliness vs. independence. We call this “ambivalence”—something that occurs not only in sophisticated fiction but in real life. And ambivalence creates a natural tension that should run the entire length of the story. In fact, if a story is reflective of real life, these mixed emotions are never fully resolved—not with “kiss and make-up” scenarios, anyway. Typically, a good resolution often leaves readers knowing that the future will not be easy, but there is hope for a happily ever after.

A pitfall writers often run into when employing inner conflict is relying too heavily on narrator reflection to develop that conflict. It’s tempting to turn to exposition (“He was being tugged in two opposite directions”). As I’ve written in previous articles, however, too much exposition slows down the pace of a story.

Instead, let your readers discover the mixed feelings for themselves through what a character says and does. Dialogue keeps a story engaging and can be a fantastic character revealer. In fact, characters often reveal more of their mixed feelings than they realize. The character may be incognizant of their inner conflicts at first, but readers will pick up on it by their dialogue and actions.


Mistrust is a subtle conflict—in fact, it can often exist without characters even recognizing it. It takes the form of an undercurrent, growing stronger and stronger until the suspicion finally surfaces dramatically. Though understated, this particular form of tension has the power to keep a character on edge, apprehensive, and fearful. And through the characters, readers vicariously experience these emotions, which fuels anxiety and tension.

One of my recent Twi-fic reads, GinnyW 31’s
Coming to Terms,
is a prime example of how a writer effectively uses mistrust to carry tension to the end of her story. At first glance, the conflict seems to be “single pregnant woman against the world.” But it’s much more subtle than that. The narrator, Bella, is not even aware of her “trust issues” until the last third of the story. Instead, she struggles against initial leeriness of the Cullen family, and more importantly, Edward’s mistrust of her. As readers, however, we are made aware of Bella’s trust issues through what she says and does. Even in the very beginning, we get small hints of her tendency to assume people’s motives are impure by her detrimental discarding of Edward’s note and phone number. It isn’t until later, as she realizes how truly damaged she has been by her father’s abandonment and Renee’s poor mothering, that she is able to see Edward’s issues and actions in a different light.


As mentioned above, it’s the small details that arouse a reader’s emotions. And if these details are dark and foreboding, the readers tense because they know something ominous will happen. Small, foreboding hints warn the reader not to get too comfortable. Characters may seem happy and content, but something is lurking to ruin that happiness.

Foreboding can be achieved through dialogue that seems slightly off—perhaps a character says something strange or hints at violence, though subtly.

Foreboding can take the form of setting description—a perfect neighborhood, save for one poorly-kept, overgrown property. Or perhaps the atmosphere is quiet…too quiet.

Tension through foreboding can also build as we uncover more and more about the history of a character. On the surface, nothing is ominous about them. But then we gradually learn they have a trouble past, maybe a suicide attempt, or a history of stealing or cheating.

Whatever forms of foreboding you choose to use, carry it to the climax of your story. But be careful not to be too obvious or repeat it too often. Foreboding works best when it is subtle, and if you beat a reader over the head with it, it becomes contrived and manipulative.

Dramatic Questions

Just as your opening paragraph should raise dramatic questions in your readers’ minds, as the writer, you should always be aware of what dramatic questions are surfacing as your story unfolds. Who is this person? Can they be trusted?

As these questions are gradually answered with background material and action, other dramatic questions should be raised to take their place. The goal isn’t to frustrate your readers (though they often feel frustrated). This is simply an effective way to maintain interest. Feed your audience bits and pieces of information, keeping track of the “rate of revelation”—the pace at which info is revealed. Revealing too much too quickly makes a story’s outcome predictable. But leaving questions unanswered at the end makes a story unsatisfying.

The Gist

Okay, kiddies—go look at your stories that may be slacking and find a way to recharge them. If your efforts at tension are too mild, don’t give up!

Find aspects of your story that might contain seeds for greater tension. These can often be found in character relationships—differences in opinion, attitude, etc.

Look at your narrator and identify where their emotions are ambivalent and play up the inner tension.

Don’t explain too much and deprive your readers of the chance to draw their own conclusions. Cut down on exposition and build tension through what your characters say and do.

Don’t allow melodrama to creep into your story. You may have chosen a naturally melodramatic plotline, but as the writer, you have complete control over your story. Use your imagination to creatively adjust the degree of tension accordingly.

Bottom line, your goal is to hold your readers’ interest without sacrificing characterization and thematic insight. If you can balance a story’s tension and depth, you’ll have a beautiful, thrilling work.

Gondolier is officially sticking it to the MAN by sharing her wealth of wordcraft knowledge with the likes of fandom. She demonstrates her tremendous skills with every chapter she posts of her wondrous story, Hydraulic Level 5.


  1. "Hero (protagonist)" - I see what you did there ;) (Unless that's not the subtle nod to Snow Crash that I thought it was, in which case ignore me...

    Great article.

  2. Some awesome person tested the fire alarm at the minute this was posted. Best column on the site, and endlessly useful. I've already scribbled two or three things into my own outline.

    Thank you. (:

  3. I love this column thank you for taking the time to pass on such valuable knowledge.

    "Ah! OMG, I can’t take the heartfail plz tell me that it will get better soon because I’ll have to stop reading if it doesn’t." I am so happy to see this type of review as a reference. I often read some of the reviews of stories I'm reading out of curiosity to see what other people think of the story, and it always frustrates me to see these types of reviews. OF COURSE the heartfail and tension is difficult sometimes to read, especially if you're heavily invested in the characters. But that is what makes you FEEL, makes you want to keep reading...or at least it should. When I can I try to compliment authors on the heartfail if it's well done. I may have felt nervous or sad or unhappy for the characters but at least the author made me emotionally feel something. Fluffy perfect stories or nice but I find myself waiting and watching for the other shoe to drop...when's the angst gonna hit? LOL :)
    -- CherBella

  4. I love your "What I Learnt In Riting Skool" column. I almost wish there was an entire blog specifically created for 'Riting Skool'-esque posts, maybe even with top writers from all fanfic fandoms.

    These blog posts are priceless with the amount of useful information presented within them.


  5. As other commentors have noted, I really appreciate your generosity in sharing your expertise. As a total amateur, I have found it difficult to find resources to improve my writing. I also find it difficult to find enough constructive criticism about my story. It is impossible to improve without honest reflection and feedback. I love support, but at times reviews in the fandom consist of "OMG that's so hot"s. I am glad to have some wonderful insight...but I often crave more.

    I would love even more specific examples of how you use your devices in your writing.

    As an AVID reader of Hydraulic I can relate to your success in creating the right amount of tension. Just when I think I can't stand it, you manage to provide some relief and replace it with a fresh batch. I actually forced my husband to begin reading your story...Just so I could have someone to talk about it with. This was no small feat let me tell you, Mr.Songirl is one complicated unicorn!

    You have managed to demonstrate your method perfectly...I really am left wanting more!

    Thank you, G!

  6. holy shizz, my readers flipped when i put some conflict in my story. wtf, seriously? do they really want everyone to be perfect and go happily on their way? some of them got really mad at me, i think. but it looks like most kept reading. but dag. what is a story without conflict?

  7. "What is a story without conflict?"

    I believe we call that "Twilight" ;)


    Epic Burn!

    Niiiiice. ;)

  9. I'm so glad to see this column here. And I agree with Adair - a blog just devoted to your column, Gondolier, would be fantastic (you live in that universe that has 48 hours in the day and you only need 2 hours sleep right?)

    Thanks for writing this. I have a small library of books on the craft of writing, with an overwhelming amount of information on all of the different areas on the subject, you manage ti distil the information into managable portions.

  10. *gigglesnort* Yeeesh. So true.

    Great tips!


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