Four Quick Cures for Your Story's Tension Headaches

We all know tension when we see it. From that perfect pause before a first kiss to the ominous music when the horror movie's designated sacrificial victim climbs the staircase to the impeccable timing of a comic genius, we recognize and respond with a sigh, a scream, a peal of laughter.

A lack of tension in our own stories may not be as easily diagnosed. But we can recognize it in our own reluctance to complete the project, beta readers who take forever to get back to us, a lukewarm response from an agent, or that special brand of "didn't love it enough"/"wasn't as captivated as I wanted to be" rejection - when one isn't getting the pre-printed form variety.

Here are a few quick tips I've found helpful for upping the ante in a story's tension. Try taking two, then call me in the morning.

1. Accentuate the differences between characters. Polarized pairs highlight each other's attributes. Felix wouldn't be half so interesting without Oscar (The Odd Couple.) Luke Skywalker's youthful earnestness is especially endearing, juxtaposed as it was with Han Solo's roguish cynicism (Star Wars.) Opposites don't really attract, they clash, but wouldn't you be more interested in watching a Youtube vid of Barack Obama trapped in an elevator with Sarah Palin than seeing either of them fawned over by one of his/her supporters?

2. Force proximity. Now that you've notched up the tension between your characters by accentuating their conflicting qualities, you need to prevent them from simply repelling each other. This is the stuck elevator from the previous item. Whether characters are forced by circumstance to work together or made to duke it out in uncomfortably close quarters, find some way to keep the story's most dramatic conflict on stage as often as possible. And never summarize the cool stuff; that's often a sign you're trying to avoid the hard work of putting strong emotion on the page.

3. Make the protagonist's decision tougher. Instead of forcing her to choose between good and bad, it's much more interesting to give her a couple of lousy options, each one its own little morality play, to decide between. Make the reader squirm and ask himself, "What would I do here? What's really the right thing?"

4. Make it matter more. Whatever character goals are in the pot, toss some extra wood on the fire underneath them whenever the plot begins to cool. You can do this by shortening the ticking clock's time, making the outcome affect someone beyond the protagonist (an innocent party works well), or even blowing the initial goal out of the water. Rather than giving your protagonist the "magic amulet," try letting the antagonist come across it, or take away your hero's fall back position. Whatever you do, don't allow the stakes to remain at the same level throughout your story. Think of your readers as famished guests, forever wanting more.

I hope you'll find some of these tips the right cure for your story's tension headaches. Do any of you have additional tips to share on the subject?


Tess said…
Oh Colleen...I needed this today! Thanks so much for the reminders...when I'm struggling with the middle, I try to think what the pov character for a scene would hate the most to happen...then I make that happen.
Colleen said…
That's an excellent tip, Tess. best of luck with your ms and thanks for the kind words!
Lark said…
Fab post!!! I'm taking all four! Is it possible to OD on fixes? Not sure if the middle is sagging or I am. Both, no doubt. Thanks for your tips!
Saranna DeWylde said…
Awesome tips! I've just passed the halfway point with my WIP and I think it's still tense, I'm still anxious to see what happens...

But in a project I shelved last month it wasn't happening. I had all this cool stuff, but I couldn't figure out why I didn't care if I wrote it or not. So, yay. I owe you a Godiva.
Colleen said…
Thanks so much, Lark!

Speaking of tension headaches, I just had two different sets of edits show up within an hour. Oy!
Colleen said…
Glad to help, and no Godiva for me (sniff!) Will settle for a virtual soy chai latte instead!

Write on!
Kerrelyn Sparks said…
Great post, Colleen! You are amazing!
Colleen said…
And you're sweet, Kerry! Thanks so much.

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