Hey, y’all 👋🏾
I was asked for my take on how to write tension into scenes, and I feel like there are three critical components that must be made clear to a reader in order for them to feel the tension in a scene, whether it be general discomfort or a life or death situation.
The reader needs to know who the MC is up against and what they want. Whether this be a parent who wants to know where the MC is or an antagonist who wants to see the MC suffer — whatever they want from the MC needs to be clear. Whoever it is, even if it’s a best friend or love interest — someone who is inherently and ultimately on the MC’s side — in the scene they need to feel like they are the “other”. Tension is essentially mental warfare, so there must be two clearly defined parties who want something from the other person without compromise.
I feel like there are two caveats I should mention with this point though.
- The scene could end in compromise, but for a truly tense situation, it shouldn’t be the goal that either the MC or the other person has in the beginning. In order for compromise to be the ultimate solution, two people must enter into negotiations initially unwilling to give up anything, even if they ultimately do (unless their goal was to force a negotiation and compromise, but even so, they would play the part).
- The opposing party can be unknown as long as they exist. It’s the “man behind the curtain” type of thing. Maybe the MC doesn’t know who is causing the obstacles in their way, but they know that there is SOMEONE causing it.
Pretty Little Liars and Revenge (the tv shows) are good examples of tension (in the earlier seasons, because honestly I never finished either of them) and show both perspectives. PLL shows the MC trying to discover who their antagonist is and Revenge is about the MC being the antagonist to the people who wronged her.
The MC should have something that they don’t want their opposition to have or know. Or vice versa — the opposition should have something that the MC wants to have, know, or confirm. Depending on the perspective of the story, the reader may not know what the other person wants from the MC — or what the MC wants from the other person — but as the author, you should know and make sure their actions align with what they’re after, even if the characters are just reacting in confusion to their opposition.
Knowing this and keeping certain elements from the reader also creates tension — when the reader knows everything from the beginning, it doesn’t make for an interesting story. Leave room for them to guess — and for your MC to guess — about what the other person wants from them. Tension is created when you only have pieces of something, but you haven’t quite figured out how they go together yet.
This can be shown in either the reader knowing things the MC doesn’t (multiple/omnipotent perspective) or the reader trying to piece things together along with the MC. Either way, there should be something that both the MC and the reader want to know.
Good examples of this would be Dread Nation (a personal favorite of mine) where the reader follows Jane McKeene and wonders how she’ll get out of her sticky situations, what’s in Summerland, what happened to her friends, and Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon where kids are disappearing and the MC knows that he and his friends will be next, but doesn’t know why, what will happen to them, or how they’ll return home and save everyone.
The last component needed is the stakes. The MC knows who they’re up against (or at least they’re up against something) and what they or the opposition is after (or at least that they want something) — now, they need the stakes. What happens if they don’t get what they’re after? What happens if the other does?
The higher the stakes, the higher the tension. Is it a plan failure? Capture? Bodily harm? The fall of a kingdom? Be clear about what the MC stands to lose and what they stand to gain. What happens if they fail? What happens if they succeed? And, my personal advice on this one — let the MC experience the stakes. Don’t put death on the table if you’re not willing to kill off a character. The story is only as tense as real consequences the characters experience. Getting out of a tight situation once or twice is one thing, but if the character is always getting out unscathed, it doesn’t matter what the perceived stakes are — the reader will feel like there are none.
Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope has very clear stakes — if the MC doesn’t rise to the occasion, then her entire world will fall to a vicious dictator.
There are a plethora of stories to choose from, but personally, I think if you’re looking for an example of a book with well written tension, The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson is a great example. It’s full of high stakes and constantly rising tension throughout the story. In the most basic of terms (without giving too much away) The MC must fight against the church after her mother uses her birth as a major component of a curse meant to destroy their home. The MC fights to save her home and if she fails her either her home will be destroyed and she’ll be taken by the curse or she’ll be taken by the leader of the church and burned on a pyre.
While I can’t claim to be an expert at writing tension, I usually try to keep track of what the MC knows, what the reader knows, and where those two things need to intersect. For me, the opposition and the stakes are generally the easiest parts to work out, but navigating the unknown is what can get tricky. You have to give enough to keep the story moving and the reader intrigued without giving away too much.
But that’s my take on writing tension. If you guys have any tips or suggestions, feel free to comment on this post to share what you know! I hope this helps and if you guys have any more suggestions on things you want my take on, feel free to comment below or message me.
C. M. Lockhart (also known simply as Chelsea) is a writer of romance and fantasy because she loves creating worlds, exploring relationships, and writing about Black girls who have more than one side to them. She’s been writing since the age of fourteen and it’s what she loves to do.
Aside from being a writer, she is the owner of Written in Melanin – a brand that came into existence for the sole purposes of publishing and supporting Black authors – which includes Written in Melanin Publishing, the Melanin Library, and the Written in Melanin Podcast. She is also a lover of music, video games, and anime, so is known to binge a series or two with her husband whenever she’s not reading and writing – or talking about reading and writing.