6 Tips For Adding Tension

Have you ever read a book you couldn’t put it down? A story where you couldn’t flip the page fast enough, or wait to dive back into its chapters, resenting all life distractions until you can read “The End”?

While novels like this are no doubt filled with worlds you connect with, terrific or terrifying characters, real dialogue, and surprising plot twists, they also contain the one thing that makes your readers eager to see what happens next: tension.

Adding tension to your story is like putting frosting on a cake. The frosting is arguably the best part of the cake, and tension is like that for your story. It draws the reader in; they want more, right until the last sentence, when all the delicious cake story has been devoured.

So how do you get this awesome tension baked into your MS? By giving these tips a try…

Not So Easy Peasy

In those rare moments in life when things are going pretty well and nothing dramatic is happening, everything is easy peasy. It’s also boring and not the ideal model to base a book on. No reader will want to read chapter after chapter of your character going about their life, always winning. They need drama. Highs. Lows. Not easy. Not peasy. And that is where the tension comes in. Make things hard, give them a win, make it hard again.

Hitchhike Through Obstacle City

Okay, so maybe you don’t want to make things too hard. That might not suit your genre and that’s fine. But every genre can add tension by hitchhiking their characters through obstacle city. They want to be with someone? Sure, they’ve got to fight for them first. They’re about to land their dream job? Okay, but that last-minute snafu with their presentation will put it in doubt. It can be a big obstacle, it can be a small obstacle, just as long as there is something, or a series of somethings, paving bumps in the road.

Get Yourself A One-Armed Man

If you’ve seen The Fugitive, you’ll know Harrison Ford’s character, Dr. Richard Kimble isn’t believed about a one-armed man who killed his wife. This leads to a wrongful conviction, an escape on route to jail, and being pursued by US Marshals. These things alone create tension. Now, I’m not suggesting your book has to have these specific forms of tension, but it needs to have the main one—which is doubt. He wasn’t believed about the one-armed man, and it created terrific tension. You need to have doubt amongst your characters. Tension is upped with their paranoia about each other and each other’s motives. Characters disliking each other, fighting, and brimming with mistrust are tension must-haves.

Resolution Revolution

Conflicts make for great tension. You know what kills conflicts? Resolving them. Your book needs to have resolutions to be a satisfying read, but resolving those conflicts—at least the big ones—too soon undoes that. The solution is to remember not to resolve too early. And, if you resolve some of your conflicts, keep the tension ample by introducing new conflicts. Did your MC just find his long-lost twin? Great! Now up the tension by revealing the twin can’t be trusted (there’s always an evil twin). Piggyback each resolution resolve with a new conflict to keep your tension tight throughout the whole story.

Be A Loser

Some would argue there are no stakes or tension without loss, and I would be one of those people. Loss is universal, everyone feels it in their lives, and so should your characters. Have them lose something. It can be as big as the love of their life or as small as the package they need to deliver for their courier job. Either way, they will feel that loss and it will drive the story forward in all of its tension-filled glory!

Hang Off Those Cliffs

A final tip for injecting tension into your book is to end each scene or chapter with a cliffhanger. It doesn’t need to be a huge OMG-it-was-the-long-lost-sister moment. It can be as simple as your MC receiving an unexpected text message, or just a simple line of dialogue that throws a spanner into the works. Whatever your cliffhanger type moment, make sure it suits what’s happening. Don’t throw out a shock for shock’s sake. The best cliffhangers are credible moments within the story. These moments can shock, but they can also devastate, be happy, sad, or unexpected.

So there you have it, my six tips for adding tension to your book:

  1. Make it hard.
  2. Create obstacles.
  3. Insert doubt.
  4. Stack your conflicts and don’t resolve them too early.
  5. Sprinkle in some loss.
  6. End your scenes/chapters with an appropriate cliffhanger.

If you include them in your manuscript, I hope they keep the reader wanting more and push you to new, exciting heights as a writer. If you have any of your own tension tips, be sure to leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear them!

Until next week, you can find me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

— K.M. Allan

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31 thoughts on “6 Tips For Adding Tension

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  1. Terrific post with wonderful examples. Very practical and easy to understand. It took me about six books to figure some of this out, despite having read all kinds of advice. Where was this fine article a few years back?? I may not have been receptive to it at the time, but I’m listening now!! I’m going to put the list up on my bulletin board.

    You said “No reader will want to read chapter after chapter of your character going about their life, always winning. They need drama. Highs. Lows.” I wrote about this in a recent blog post, but what I couldn’t seem to find was information about the psychological reason this is true. Why in the world wouldn’t someone want an easy pleasant life? Or is it that we don’t want to READ about someone else’s easy pleasant life??

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In many ways writing a book is a lot like making a cake. Lots of ingredients with special care when it comes to adding the right amount. That’s what this is and sometimes it’s easy to forget.

    Thanks for doing this. It serves as a reminder of all the special stuff that go into the recipe of our book.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. “reunites with long lost twin.” “long lost twin can’t be trusted.” blimey, my novella BLOOD should have done far better, this being one of the subplots in it eheheheheh.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your post made me remember the first painful but needed negative feedback I ever got. In my early drafts, it was far too obvious that the MC will win any kind of struggle he appeared in. It eventually led me to rework pretty much every single combat sequence but also taught me much (at least I hope). Several went from “you already lost but you don’t know it yet” to “I need a miracle, luck, or both to get out of this in one piece” – and it also gave me a chance to see the character learn through experience instead of suddenly being better every time without seeing how or why the progress happened.
    I also added parts that went deeper into said character to explore his doubts as he tries to find his place in the grand scheme of things while dealing with the expectations put on him and some personal struggles.
    Anyway, thanks again for sharing this with us. It’s a nice experience to look at it and compare it with where I was three years ago and where I am now – and see some progress.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, totally saving this post for when I feel blocked: time to throw another obstacle in MC’s way. That said, it’s a balancing act trying to provide enough tension in a realistic novel without it seeming unrealistic. Like, MC’s dad is a jerk, who then drags the family off to the Alaskan bush with no preparation, then the dad turns violent, then the MC runs away, falls in a crevasse, then the mom gets cancer…Whoops that forced plotline already exists (sorry, Kristin Hannah!). Ha. But, you see what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

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