Tension: What Is It & How Do We Write it?

I don’t write suspense thrillers. I haven’t (in a while) worked on a murder mystery. My characters don’t usually have guns, spaceships, or fast cars. (There were no fast cars in 1913!)

I still need tension. But if tension isn’t a chase scene or a shoot-out, what is it?

My dictionary has a lot of definitions. Here’s the one that’s probably the most accurate, for our purposes: The interplay of conflicting elements in a piece of literature. Honestly, though, I like this one better: The act or process of stretching something tight.

Tight. One of my favorite ways to describe strong writing.

Tight writing is where there are no extra words. Tight writing is where the layers are painted in with a few brush strands that have just lightly touched the page…perfectly. Tight writing is where the story pulls us through the words and pages, without us even noticing.

Because those words & pages have tension.

Those words and pages have us wondering about the outcome of the scene, wondering about what will happen next and how the characters will respond. They have us wondering what the characters will cause to happen. It doesn’t always matter if we’re wondering about blood and major injuries. We may be wondering if someone will laugh, if someone will say what they’re actually thinking, if someone will choose the dress that shows cleavage or the one with the high, lace collar.

We need to be watching, waiting, worrying.

How do we, as writers, make our readers do that?

I think we set a goal for the characters. We make it clear what they want, or–at the very least–what they’ve assumed will happen. And we create obstacles. Big obstacles that arc over the scene, and mini-obstacles that hit the characters like scatter-shot, all through the scene. Some of those obstacles come from other characters, some from the environment, and some from the character actually going for the goal. An obstacle can be challenging, painful, irritating or laugh-out loud funny.

It just has to get in the way.

This kind of set-up, these goals and their obstacles keep the reader busy, an active participant in what’s going on. They keep that reader from drifting away because we’ve just loaded them up with too much setting or too much dialog that’s not going anywhere. They structure the whole scene and keep things moving forward. Quickly.

With tension.


  1. PJ Hoover says:

    I loved when I learned about tension and tight words. That doesn’t mean I am good at it. But I do recognize the need.


  2. K.M. Weiland says:

    My WIP is set in 1914, and I’m determined to try a car chase scene. It’s not going to be fast and furious, but I’m thinking it’ll be a lot of fun!


    • beckylevine says:

      Wow–where in 1913. Mine’s in Chicago. I just read stats about the increase in kids’ being hurt/killed when automobiles really started being present–because the kids were so used to just playing in the streets.


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