On Writing: Tension

Hello, everyone ─ and happy last day of August! September’s just around the bend, and I don’t know about any of you, but once those ’ember’s come along I get this cozy feeling inside with images of bread baking, chai, PUMPKINS . . . I could really go on and on. If cooler days are coming, and since it’s inevitable, we might as well focus on the delightful parts, no?

Today I’m going to share a bit about something I recently read in one of my writing books (yes, after seven volumes I’m finally actively studying how to write a novel the ‘right way’). Now, this book I’m reading is called Writing Lessons from the Front by Dr. Angela Hunt, a successful author of over 130 works. She also teaches writing (hence this book), and so far I have found great advice and some real brain exercises. Lots of things to keep in mind that I’ve never thought of before.

So apparently, in writing, there is a method to the madness.

The bit I’m going to share with you today is on ‘tension’, and the concept is that tension must exist on every page in order to keep readers reading. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every page needs to be packed with drama or thrills. The simple concept is ‘unanswered questions’. No, they aren’t supposed to remain unanswered, but stretching out the time between when the question is asked and when it is answered is the tension. It’s like a sandwich:

Question asked  >  time of tension/waiting  > question answered

Say Peter, James, and Martha are hanging out at the top of a cliff (a very precarious venue, by the way) and Peter falls off the edge into the ocean thirty feet below, to the abject horror of his compatriots. IS HE STILL ALIVE? (question asked). James and Martha can’t see him so they race to the shore at the bottom of the cliff (waiting), where they find Peter in the surf.

Let’s stop there for a moment and talk more about the waiting period. Sure, it’s fine enough to say that they ‘raced to the shore at the bottom of the cliff’, but that in and of itself is not a very tense moment. So what do we do? Trip them up! Place obstacles in front of James and Martha to slow them down, frustrate them as they try desperately to get the shore in time ─ if it’s not already too late, of course. After all, hitting the water from a thirty foot drop is perilous. Not to mention that Peter can’t swim, as Martha hysterically informs James while they dash forth. (There could be several reasons why James was never in the know about Peter’s inability to tread water, but that’s not where we’re going at the moment).

We have our first ‘obstacle:

  • Peter can’t swim

Let’s add some more trouble:

  • The vegetation at the back of the cliff is thick ad tangly, slowing their descent.
  • Maybe they find a sudden drop in the slop and they have to decide whether to risk jumping or backtrack to find a different route.
  • One of them slips on a randomly discarded banana peel and takes a tumble (earning some scrapes and bruises, of course).

That is some ordeal! Who would be so rude as to throw away their banana peel like that? (Maybe Peter tossed it after they ate their lunch?) Battered and breathless, James and Martha break through the mini crucible to the beach, struggling to run through the shifting sand, and finally make it to the water. James spots the orange shirt first, bobbing in the foamy brine, and hastens to pull his friend out. Behind him, Martha is close to tears. Battered by the waves, James can’t determine Peter’s condition, so the two of them haul his limp form to the shore. He’s cold to the touch, but couldn’t that be just from the water? Martha can’t find a pulse, but she’s shaking too much to rightly tell. James pumps on Peter’s chest and slaps his face.

At this point the question of ‘Is Peter still alive?’ remains unanswered. Right about now would be a good time to insert a section break or end the chapter, when the tension is highest ─ just before the question is answered. This would prompt a reader to forge ahead and find out whatever happened to Peter. Were I evil, I could stop here and refrain from telling you until my next post, but I’m not always as heartless as I’ve been accused of being and will answer the question:

James was on the verge of giving up when Peter’s body convulsed. Salt water spewed out of his mouth between gasping breaths and lung-raking coughs. Martha burst into tears, and James felt dizzy with relief. Etc, etc. The point is PETER IS, IN FACT, ALIVE!

In summation, the space between when a question is asked and when that question is answered is the home of ‘tension’, the fishing line that tugs on a reader to keep reading in order to find out what happens.


To learn more about Dr. Angela Hunt and her plethora of books, visit her website  — and add some titles to your reading list on Goodreads!

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