Tips to Keep Tension Taut

catfightKind of a tongue-twister title, but today’s tips are all about tension. Whether you write fiction, memoir or creative nonfiction, tension is a vital part of your story. Even more importantly, in order to keep readers hooked, every scene must build tension–down to the sentence level.

Writing Tip for Today: How can you keep tension building at the scenic level?

Make Readers Care

New writers often misunderstand the need for scenic tension and so they keep their characters worried or scared. But tension isn’t always about what characters are doing or feeling. The basis for tension in a scene must stem from making your reader care. Accomplish this by creating characters who are as real as you or me. Humans are complex but we all need the same things: food, shelter, love and acceptance, to name a few. If you create a character who is at odds with her surroundings in some way, readers will only care if they are able to identify some aspect of themselves in that character. If readers cannot sympathize or empathize with the character and his predicament, it’s a lot harder for them to care deeply.

NO Micro-managers 

But what about each sentence in a scene? It’s hard enough to give an entire story high stakes and realistic characters. Even when writers accomplish this, we often sabotage our efforts on the scene/sentence level. Many times we kill tension by not allowing readers to make up their own minds about much of anything. An example might be a scene where you need to show an action, say a reaction to an attempted assault.

If we write, “He jumped three centimeters to his left, swinging his right arm at a forty-five degree angle. His assailant ducked his head. Rats. He backed up another five feet. “You’ll never catch me, you despicable dinosaur!” He shouted but only a high reedy sound emerged. The six-foot high wall scraped the back of his head. Spinning around, grabbing a shallow niche in the concrete, he hoisted himself up. His bloodied fingertips  cried out for relief but he couldn’t let go. He swallowed the scream that was strangling his throat.”

In the example, I’ve included far too many details for a fast-paced action scene. Each detail slows the pace, releasing tension. Moreover, the precise measurements and directional cues (right, left) force readers to stop and imagine an exact mental picture. And although writers bundle together a series of actions, thinking it will be experienced all at once, the opposite is true: readers must process one action at a time as they read. If we relinquish our stranglehold on managing what the reader experiences, it might go more like this:

“He jumped out of the way–but just barely. He took a wild swing at the guy. Rats. He backed up, scraping the back of his head against the high wall. Trapped. “You’ll never catch me!” He spun around and grabbed at a niche in the wall and hoisted himself up. His bloodied fingers couldn’t hold on long, but he had to try. He swallowed a scream.”


Donald Maass (literary agent and author) is credited for creating the term microtension. It means you provide tension at the sentence level within a scene. By adding this type of tension to the larger tension of the stakes and the character, you’ll keep readers on the edges of the their seats, rooting for (caring about) the character. You can insert Microtension  is created any time your character has conflicting feelings or opposite emotions at the same time. A good example of this is in the way we often cry at weddings or laugh at funerals. Characters who display conflicted feelings are often relate-able to readers.Dialog, physical action and even your narrative can add to microtension. In my before and after examples above, I broke long sentences into shorter ones and used fragments to show urgency. I replaced abstract words with more concrete words and left more to the reader’s imagination. Editor and author C.S. Lakin has some more great tips on microtension here.

Your Turn: Do you have other ways of adding tension to your scenes? What are they?



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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

5 comments on “Tips to Keep Tension Taut

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