Monday, February 14, 2011


If you read writing blogs, you hear over and over about how you need to have tension in your writing. If you attend one of Donald Maas's fabulous seminars, he says the same thing. In fact Donald even goes further and talks about having tension on every page.

I agree a hundred percent.

Tension is what keeps you reading. Tension can help bring out emotion, or in most cases make a situation emotionally stronger.

So how do you do that exactly?

Well you could put a bomb in your protagonists back pocket with a timer set to the end of the book, but that's not really very realistic, is it?

The thing is, the tension doesn't have to be life or death, although that's of course one of the strongest ways to do it. It could be simply that two siblings don't get along and it creates tension because you the reader, care about the fact that they are not getting along.

It could be that your character wants something that they cannot have, a lover, monetary status, social status, it doesn't matter as long as it's something that they don't have, but they want.

I'm reading a book right now, where the author has done it a little differently, and it's working very well. It's a variation of the bomb in the back pocket.

One of the main characters is someone you don't want to see hurt, a true patriot, always willing to put it all on the line, someone that we would all like to be, but probably never will. That's not to say that he's perfect, no one is, but he's one of those characters that a lot of us can relate to.

OK, so he's attacked by a group of mercenaries, but they don't kill him, instead, they place what looks like a normal credit card in his wallet. Only this credit card has the ability to transmit his position to the bad guys that attacked him. They are trying to use him to find another person, because our main character thinks like the other person, and will likely anticipate his moves.

It seems pretty easy, and contrived, but I have to say that the author has done a great job of making the reader believe that it could be done, and that the main character has no idea. At least not yet.

The result is that every time I pick up the book, and this character appears, I can picture that card in his wallet, and I can feel the tension for him to find and remove it. It has helped the story immensely.

Of course this technique won't work with most stories, but the idea is not to stick a bomb in every character's pocket, it's to add tension in a way that fits with your story.

Have you read any books lately that used this effectively? How do you add tension?


  1. Great post, Douglas. It's so easy to over do the tension and give your reader a headache, but it's also just as easy to under do the tension, leaving your reader bored.

    I've been thinking about this aa lot recently as I'm editing my NaNo novel and want to get the tension right - not easy!

  2. I think about tension in writing all the time. I like the credit card angle, that's good.


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