Think about the last really good, can’t-put-it-down, up-until-three-in-the-morning-just-one-more-chapter book you read. What was it that kept you reading? It was probably some sort of suspense. You just had to turn one more page to see how things turned out. This suspense is created by tension. The creative writing technique of creating tension and relieving tension is used by storytellers to pull readers through to the end of the story.

You can create tension in a variety of ways. But before we talk about that, let’s address when it is appropriate to increase tension and relieve it. Tension can be equated to conflict; it could be a conflict between two people, between people and an object, or between a people and what’s in their own heads. Fundamentally, it is someone wanting something but being prevented by something or someone else from getting it. Use tension to build suspense and keep people reading so they have to find out what happens.

One key in building tension is that the thing or circumstance wanted by the main character has to be important; the stakes need to be high. Let’s say you’re telling a story about someone who is late. Let’s say this person is five minutes late for a continuing education college class where the instructor notoriously takes ten minutes to get started on the lesson. Depending on the type of person she is, this may be quite a tense situation. However, now let’s say this same person is five minutes late for her last graduate class, it’s the final exam, and if she’s not there on time, the doors will be locked and she can’t get in, and if she can’t take the class, she has to wait a whole semester to graduate. Which scenario makes your throat tighten a bit?

To create tension, you can use one or more of these techniques:

  • First, write. Short. Sentences. All of those periods close together automatically create tension. It seems more urgent.
  • Use dialogue; showing people in actual situations having conversation makes the writing feel more alive and real, especially if what the person is saying is a façade for what he really thinks or believes.
  • Use specificity with dialogue. Make the words reflect the anger. “’Please, please, please let me in. I promise I won’t make a noise.’ She got on her knees and shook her clasped hands at the door guard.” vs. “She begged the door guard to let her in.”
  • Be specific with narrating the action: “She slammed her car door shut, catching her purse straps. She yanked until they let loose and she fell to the ground. She got up and stumbled to the auditorium.” vs. “She hurried to the auditorium.”
  • Stay close up. The first ways of writing in these last two points bring you close to what’s happening in the story; the second ones pull you away. Staying close up builds tension.

Think about tension the next time you are writing. Build it higher and higher to keep the reader involved until the climax when you resolve the conflict and relieve the tension.