Saturday, October 5, 2013


Tension produces anxiety, excitement and fear. It's in the book a kid reads with a flashlight after Mom has closed the door. It's in the book a kid hides in his lap and reads while the teacher drones on about long division and percentages. It's in the book that makes the reader care deeply about the protagonist, and what is going to happen to that person.

I think creating tension in my writing is the hardest thing to accomplish. It means I must eliminate sections of description, dialogue and juicy observation, all excellent examples, of course, of my really great writing. At first it is hard to see why my story is better without all these paragraphs, why sixty pages can be cut without anyone (but me) noticing. But it's true.

As I revise, I ask myself exactly what happens on each page. How does the chapter support the plot? Would anyone notice if it were...gone?


  1. Speaking of tension, I had an interesting conversation with an eight-year-old recently; he asked, if I wrote a "chapter book," what it would be about?
    I casually answered I was always interested in the problems of friendships and his reply was, "I think it should be more exciting."

    He's probably right!

  2. Tension is composed of a lot of things. Some of it is plot, as you say; some of it is the way the book is written and structured--cliffhanger ends to chapters, etc. And some of it is created in our investment in the characters. I recently listened to BALLET SHOES, an old favorite by Noel Streatfeild about 3 young girls who must make their way in the world of the London stage in order to support themselves. Each of the girls is so different and so well drawn that we find ourselves rooting for her in her auditions, sympathizing with her in her downfalls, etc. We even writhe for their poor plain friend who never gets the part despite being so clever and talented and needing the money so badly. Of course the author does raise the stakes by creating a situation of financial hardship for them; will they or won't they succeed in maintaining their home before Great Uncle Matthew comes back from his voyage around the world? And will he indeed ever come back?

  3. I think building tension is as much about what you add as what you cut. Cliffhanger chapter endings, forcing your character to make choices -- and if he makes a bad one, all the better, making your character face a fear or phobia, placing obstacles in your characters way. Then, once you've added in all of those elements, you go back and cut all the unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs and ratchet up the tension even more.