Writing Tension in Every Line

Writing tension into every line sounds simple. But when writers struggle with this idea, the results can sink their efforts.

Writing Tip for Today: What is tension and what is its role in writing?

Uneasy Suspense

Tension is also called uneasy suspense. Most writers understand that the climax needs tension, but to be effective, tension must be a thread that grows as the story unfolds. What may begin as a thread of tension—a feeling that you don’t know something, but you want to find out—gets thicker with every sentence.

A related idea, rising action, helps readers see how the tension gradually builds. Action (people doing stuff) puts tension on stage and forces a character to react and make decisions. Suspense flags when too much of the story relies on characters thinking, characters not interacting with others or characters whose goals don’t matter much.

Too much sitting and thinking, not enough interaction and a weak goal douse tension. Look at your work and identify passages with a single character on stage, sitting and thinking. See if you can add another character and some kind of action to inject a feeling of uneasy suspense. Readers should always feel uncertain about what’s coming next and should always be asking questions.

Micro-Tense Words

Writers need tension in every line. Add uneasy suspense by finding tense words as you construct your sentences. Certain words have a tension or urgency about them. Use these words to create more tension. This technique is sometimes called micro-tension. Although each addition is small, it adds up.

Use specific micro-tension words to guide your readers. Words of “delay” might include paused, froze or waited. Those which imply unease or fear might be hid, fled or gulped. Words of urgency might include inevitable, deadline or squeezed. The goal is to give your readers the same emotions as your character. Let them feel the story as much as read the story. Instead of “He went into the closet,” write “He hid in the closet.”

Passive verbs are usually very general. Active verbs, specific. Use more to-the-point active verbs. Readers will picture something specific instead of wondering what the writer really means. This keeps the story unfolding at a brisk clip, keeping readers on the edge of their seats.

Readers should always be uncertain about what comes next.

Sentence Tension

You can also up tension by the way in which you arrange your sentences. Think of your scene as a pyramid, with each revelation or action upping the tension more. Example: Our dog wasn’t purebred after all. The boys asked, “Do we have to give her away?” I said, no we can keep her—she is just a little different. “No fair!” I smiled. “Life’s not fair.”

The scene would be more tense arranged like this: When I said our dog was different, the boys shouted, “No fair!” I agreed. “Life isn’t fair, sons.” My youngest piped up. “We don’t have to give her away, do we?” I smiled. “Of course not.”

I think there is a difference between tension you feel internally as the writer and the actual tension you write into the story. In my experience, a writer’s internal anxiety is often caused by a reluctance to divulge authentic details. We naturally want to protect ourselves and our characters, so we decline to bring out the raw and genuine tension. The result is a shallow surface experience that can equal a boring read. Let yourself go to the uncomfortable places and bring authentic tension to every line.

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.

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