Saturday, January 15, 2011

Creating Tension

Tension is one of the most important parts of the novel. The goals, motivations and conflicts that the main character finds herself in the middle of mean nothing if they don't also create tension.  Donald Maass, who wrote The Breakout Novel, says this about tension:  In dialogue, tension means disagreement.  In action, it means not physical business bu the inner anxiety of the point-of-view character.  In exposition, it means ideas in conflict and emotions at war.

To simplify it more than it should be, it is basically opposition of one kind or another.  For example:
a)  Your main character has an external goal which somehow conflicts with an internal goal;
b)  Perhaps she has two external goals, but can only even attempt to accomplish one, so she has to choose between the two but she wants both of them equally;
c)  Someone she loves, or is close to ( best friends) wants the same thing she wants; along with this idea rests
d)  Achieving her goal ( winning the boy) would hurt someone else ( her BFF), or would be doing something that her conscience or her own sense of values would not allow;
e) Your MC starts the novel out wrestling with some kind of dilemma, which could be either internal or external, but which leads to the question of how, when, or if she is going to resolve the problem.

There are many ways to create tension, but no matter how you do it, it has to be something that follows in the footsteps, so to speak, of your GMC.  It must be believable, it must be something that occurs naturally to or with your MC, and it must have some kind of compelling reason for the circumstances to occur which lead to the tension.

One example that I've read over and over about "tension" is that of Romeo and Juliet.  Romeo is in love with Juliet but knows that if continues to pursue her, he is going against his family, whom he also loves.  But his love for her is too great for him to ignore and to give her up.  So no matter which course of action he decides upon, someone, including him, is going to be hurt.  Now that is Tension!

As your story goes along, you can create more tension by having your MC solve one problem, or overcome one obstacle standing in the way of her achieving her goal, only to have another problem or obstacle pop up in front of her.  Perhaps this one is not only different, but more difficult for her to overcome.  Each succeeding problem she solves should lead to just one more obstacle, until finally your climax occurs, the resolution follows, and both MC and reader can take a deep breath.  The more opposing factors there are in a novel, the more tension is created; the more tension created, the more the story is moved forward, and the more compelling the story becomes for the reader.

Along with this tension/obstacle/problem solving, don't forget that your MC needs to show a change in her feelings and her attitudes.  Another word for this is Growth.  As she goes along, she needs to show growth in her character.  If she doesn't feel or show any kind of change in her makeup, then the whole work has been for nothing, because nothing has impacted the MC.

In closing, remember that your GMC must lead to T or Tension.  The MC's goals must be realistic and achievable, her motivation must be strong enough to overcome obstacles, the conflicts must also be believable and must arise, hopefully, from both external AND internal choices, and all of this must lead to realistic circumstances that create tension.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.


  1. Very educational blog. I dont struggle so much with tension, but at times I do with growth.

    Oh, btw the blog looks great! I like the new color scheme.


  2. This was most timely, Mikki. My character needed more inner/re-latable struggles to contend with. Got mi' noggin' going. Thank you!