Writing Tension 101 ⁠— How to build tension as a newbie writer

Azrie

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Before starting; why did I make this guide? As I started to venture more on the field of helping new writers I noticed a glaring issue. A lot of them didn’t know how to build tension, or simply found it hard.

The real name of this guide is: Tension 101 ⁠— A simple way of building it.

This guide is meant for anyone that struggles to build tension and/or sustain it through the chapter. While I wouldn’t say in-depth, I will say it’s quite long. I would also like to note that all of these concepts are something I came up with in order to breakdown things in order to make it easier to understand for everyone. With that in mind let’s start.

What is tension?

Tension is the feeling of anxiousne⁠— wrong. For the sake of this guide let us say, it’s what makes a drama happen, what makes a reader interested and what gets character development⁠— it’s a form of conflict.

It can certainly be the feeling of anxiousness, but I want to expand it a bit further; for the sake of the guide, I will consider tension as ⁠— what gives impact to things.

How many times has anyone written a scene that they love only to be told it has no impact?

What makes a scene feel dull/impactless?

Generally, tension is missing due to having no build-up, it can also be missing by a character simply not worrying about things ⁠— feels out of place. There are other things that can mess with tension such as: not lingering enough on things, wrong reading order in a sentence and/or, trying to build it up for too long.

Aah… It’s already sounding complicated, why do we need tension in the first place? It sounds like something annoying and tedious to think about! Especially if we take it in such broad terms!

Tension is a big part of writing since it can be what keeps a reader well… reading⁠—I wonder what happens next… I wonder what will he do to get out of this mess!? Don’t give up, you can still do it!

It’s one of the many ways to keep a reader hooked and invested into a character.

Character feelings and interactions:

This is a big part of what builds tension ⁠— How does the character feel about this? How does this affect their mentality? How do they affect other characters? Us; humans are very complicated. So are characters, albeit in different aspects.

Tension is a good way to show a character is three-dimensional.

How do they feel about it?
How will they react?
How does this affect their emotions?


Now, these questions might feel dumb ⁠— they are going to be nervous of course! What else do you expect?! Well, yes. Perhaps they get nervous and experience hopelessness, perhaps they experience just anxiety. They can experience righteousness even. But keep in mind that, for tension to exist there needs to be some type of conflict.

Setting:

Perhaps it might not need to be a crisis as one might think, this just depends on the character. We can care about a character more than a situation.

Let’s say a character really cares about their book, and it gets taken away. We don’t care about the book at all! Seriously, try it.

The character cares about the book, it’s his book. The one he got as a family heirloom, the one that was given to him by his dying mom, the very same book that gave him hope in the sea of dread...

IT WAS HIS BOOK.


Now, with this mini example. We still don’t care about the book itself, however, we know the character’s reasoning to care about the book now. Make the character invested.

The setting needs to fit with the character’s motivations and things that affect them⁠—that comes naturally within any story⁠—not something to worry about.

Building the tension:

So, now after establishing all of that we can finally move into the actual tension. Keep in mind that characters are the most important factor when having tension ⁠⁠— well they are the most important part of a story. They can make or break tension, so they need to be in the right place at the right time. In short: they have to be invested.

Starting it:

So how do we start tension? Well, assuming we meet all the prerequisites we throw a conflict in there. Conflict won’t necessarily make tension but it will certainly help create it. So, let us go back to the character that had its book taken. What happened?

The book, he cares about it. Therefore he is mad/sad that it got taken away.

This is when something I will call: concept association comes in. It’s what I would call the core of any story — and an important thing to be aware of — but what is this concept association? Well, we can use it for words or concepts and link those together. Simple, right?

For example, the action of metal hitting metal we can call it clank this is very basic and many people use it already. These types of single-sound words are used for instant impact.

Albeit this type of word association is simply called onomatopoeia. Which is wordy… They are commonly used as a way of creating instant-impact, and is what I would categorize as a subtype of concept association. Although I must note that it is not the only way of creating instant-impact.

Onomatopoeias are something we already associated with a sound long ago, which is why some things we try to use don’t ring right. For example - BOOOM! For thunder. It works out, but it will feel weird at first for the reader due to not having made the connection with it before.

Onomatopoeias are used for when you want “Something” to instantly hit the reader without having time to process what happens. Must note that we need a hint to it, otherwise it simply feels out of place.

Example:


* * *​

“Jake, don’t do it!”
“You don’t tell me what to do, Jaketwo!”

BANG!

Blood splattered from his head everywhere, only the smoke coming out of the muzzle to be seen. The red liquid pooled at his feet as he remained unmoving. Only one Jake came back that day.

* * *​

It comes out of nowhere, and that’s the idea. Instant-impact. Worth noting that sometimes onomatopoeias distance the reader so they might not be the best way to go about things unless that's your intention.

This is pretty basic, but I thought it was worth mentioning. So let us get a bit further with the concept association part. Readers associate words with concepts and so on.

So. Let us return to the book, we already created a type of association by explaining how much the character cared. This is why we don’t need to keep making the same points to show he cares about the book; we already justified the character’s thoughts by explaining it once. Therefore:

The tension started.
It started because the character is already invested.


The conflict plus the character being invested in it creates tension. And word association will come into play on build-up and lingering. It is important that in order for tension to be there and to feel palpable we need our character to care.

Build-up & Lingering:

Build-up; I see many people struggle with this part. But how do we exactly build it up?

There is a really simple way. I will call it the three-step-rule. And I already used it in this guide.

Well, what is it? Whenever we think of a subject we linger on it three times for maximum impact.

His family heirloom, his most important possession, his very reason being. So why does this work? It gives a lot of emphasis to a subject all over again, while borrowing from each previous statement and making it stronger than the last.

The thing with this trick is that it only works back to back, and is used to build tension really quickly. You can use it again and again consecutively to keep it escalating, but generally twice is more than enough.

So, we have instant build up on tension, but what about a slower build-up? This is when lingering comes in, emphasizing a subject repeatedly— similar to mentioning it three times, but being a lot more… casual about it. No need to start the sentence with the very same word. Simply mentioning things a lot over the course of things will count as lingering.

Lingering engraves things into a reader’s mind, it’s a constant reminder.

Word association can be used to build a higher tension in a pretty much instant manner.

Let us say things have gone haywire and our protagonist is about to be kissed by a beautiful girl, but for whatever reason, he doesn’t want to. I will be using first person for this example.

Her warm breath breathing down on my face, her cherry lips coming closer as she blushed ⁠— THIS WAS WRONG.

So, while I don’t think this example is well-written it gets the job done. We used an em-dash as a connector/cut-off to say it was wrong. This throws the character in a clear sense of panic and basically just escalates things.

The Apex & After-effect:


The Apex is what I would refer to as “the tipping point” it's when all the tension is completely built up. And we are at the final stretch, using everything before you have created a LOT of tension. Now we need to use it.

So, how will we use tension? Generally, it’s useful in fight scenes with instant impact. But let us go back to the last example. Let us turn it into three paragraphs.

Her warm breath breathing down on my face, her cherry lips coming closer as she blushed ⁠— THIS WAS WRONG.

“Hey… Did I tell you I love you?” she whispered.

She caressed my cheek as her lips closed in⁠— THIS IS WRONG!

“N⁠— Hmphf!

Her contact interrupted my fruitless attempt of denial.


This is a fake scenario, and the Apex is the kiss, the inevitable kiss if you will. Since there is no way for the character to interrupt it unless the girl speaks again. We built a small tension with no context of the character having an internal panic, and then it peaks at the kiss. So: How will our character react afterwards?

This is the After-effect.

What does the MC get from it? It would be dumb to have a lot of tension without a solid after-effect. Otherwise, the reader will sigh and simply drop the book ⁠— why so much tension if nothing comes out of it.

For example (using a very weird writing style) First, let us pick a name for the book MC, he will be Jay.

* * *​

When did things turn out this way…
I didn’t choose this.

I can’t remember when it all happened.
It no longer matters.

How did I lose her?
I miss you, Yui… my precious book.

[Lingered 3 times on the same subject without tension, and yet we already tell the mc is regretful. Yes, the book will be named Yui. It’s my piece of writing ⁠— I decide!]

Sometimes I wonder if things went wrong? No, they were wrong. Everything I did was wrong. And yet I did not think about it. I was naive. A book capable of destroying the world. Who would’ve thought? I should’ve thought...

[Lingered yet again]

“Tell me JJ, how does it feel?” His condescending tone did not do anything, nothing mattered anymore. There was no point in answering him ⁠— failures do not get answers. Naive people do not get answers... [Linger]

“Nothing to say? Then I suppose, I will have Yui.”

Yui… i-is, she... My eyes started to shake. It wasn’t possible, she was dead… She is supposed to be dead… But what if… What if…Perhaps she wasn’t dead… That means… She must be!⁠—

[Mention of Yui acts as a tipping point for character, albeit rushed and completely over-exaggerated.]

“I might be a failure…” I clenched my fist. “but if she still exists then...”
“Then?” He didn’t understand something. He didn't understand that... It was my turn.

“Then, I will get her back!” [Determination ⁠— After-effect]

* * *​

So, even though the character is totally and painfully anime-esque, he still shows that he cares about things, and can have sudden emotion-swings. This was a different kind of tension, but it serves its purpose. Namely — character reignites their flame as the outcome. He went from depression to determination. That was the objective.

Conclusion:

This is something for new writers to help grasp things easily ⁠— if it has served you in any way then it has done its job. Just remember that we all start somewhere, improvement is a slow and painful process. One that we must continue to progress.

Extra: general advice for new writers.

Don’t be afraid to use ellipsis, exclamation and question marks to get points across. Depression scenes are not the same without ellipsis, overusing can be bad, but it can be hard to overuse them. Don’t be afraid to use them to add a tone ⁠— an emotion to things.

Keep a consistent pacing ⁠— remember; we can’t throw constant descriptions and then drop them entirely. This feels inconsistent — find a rhythm.

If your characters feel out of place then they probably are. A good way to make characters feel “human” are the three dimensions of characters (this topic is a beast on its own, don’t base it off this little blurb).

  • The three dimensions:
    • Physical ⁠— The 1st dimension ⁠— How do they look? Buff? What type of hair color? What clothes do they wear. Any scars?

    • What do they do ⁠— The 2nd dimension ⁠— How do they act? Goofy? Kind? Determined?
How do they portray themselves to people? How do other people look at them? That is the 2nd dimension.
  • Psychological ⁠— the 3rd dimension and the hardest one to achieve ⁠— How do they feel? What are their motivations? What is WRONG with them?

How does their past affect them? Are they kind because they want to feel better about themselves? Important: It generally needs to be a flaw or otherwise it won’t feel three-dimensional. If they are kind because they received kindness that feels dull and uninteresting.

The third dimension is their contradictions ⁠— their internal struggles.


Note: The three-dimensions topic is an ultra summary and should not be used for guidance, it simply is to make someone aware of each of the dimensions and roughly what each represents.

Don’t try to copy someone’s style as your own not to say you can’t copy a style but don’t force yourself to try to copy it if you struggle with it. A writing style is your style. What do you like? Perhaps you like the forsaken character name along with their dialogue.

  • “How are you doing?” (Jay)

Perhaps you like the dialogue tag approach. “He said, she said, he smiled, smirked, etc…”

This is your style, the preferences you have for writing. I love to abuse italics. Your likings is what will make it unique.

Please do note that: This is not meant to show you how to acquire your own writing style in the first place, and sometimes we also need to think about what a reader will like/dislike and try to fit it to our style. We don’t want anything so niche that only we will be able to understand.
Sometimes streamlining things is better after all.

And last piece of extra advice:

The most important aspect of a story are the characters not the world. If the world is good but the characters are flat, you might hook the reader but it will be an incredibly jarring experience. If you don’t have good characters for your dreamworld then just wait.

Waiting in writing is a really important tool, nothing is more painful than writing your passion project only to realize you don’t have the skill to follow such an adventure. Isn’t that right, Eli?

And that is all. Thank you.

Special thanks to: Fellow mentor: Yandere Darkling, and Leaks.
 

TypeAxiom

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There has to be a way to condense this down to two paragraphs and put it at the top as a summary. The goodreads page that Ace put in the chat was quite succinct and illustrates the concept of suspense and tension well, on top of giving an example of what it is not.

 
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BenJepheneT

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To all those too lazy to click a link, here's a dumbed down TL;DR.

Say I'm sitting with Gayson on a bench. Underneath the bench is a bomb that will explode in 15 minutes. 15 minutes later, the bomb explodes.

Simple set-up for a tense scene. But it ain't tense, yet. There's no build-up, nor there is any conclusion. It's just A, B and C.

So let's do it again.

Gayson and I'm sitting on a bench. Underneath the bench is a bomb that goes off in 15 minutes.

Problem is, neither Gayson and I know that there's a bomb underneath us that'll go in 15 minutes. Only the audience knows that there's a bomb underneath us. All while Gayson and I leisurely talk about our day, the audience screams and shouts about the bomb underneath the bench.

However, they can't possibly shout into the screen, and thus they can only watch, and ponder whether we'll realize just in time or fall into the bomb's trap.

Such is tension.
 

TypeAxiom

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Basically it's just saying that the core of tension is the reader's knowledge. Knowledge of something a character doesn't know (the bomb, Hitchcock), knowledge of what a character finds precious (the book, Azrie).

As long as you have revealed to the reader something beforehand, then that knowledge will hang over the reader whenever something relevant is happening. You should make the relations between the relevant event and the prior knowledge fairly obvious too. Only when you make it apparent that the terrorists carrying the bomb is the same bomb that will be under that table will the reader be excited, or else its just another bomb.

While Azrie isn't wrong per se, I think he buried his main point in way too much text, not to mention its titled "Tension 101" but then veers off into character building, which while relevant, deserves its own post and in this case only serves to distract from what should be the main focus of the post: that is, tension building and resolution.

@Azrie the style you use also makes it unnecessarily hard and tedious to read for a guide. Some of your personal touches and voices are fine, but when you go to the extent of interrupting your guide to put in irrelevant thoughts such as:
Yes, the book will be named Yui. It’s my piece of writing ⁠— I decide!
...it just distracts the reader and splits their focus.
 
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Azrie

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Basically it's just saying that the core of tension is the reader's knowledge. Knowledge of something a character doesn't know (the bomb, Hitchcock), knowledge of what a character finds precious (the book, Azrie).

As long as you have revealed to the reader something beforehand, then that knowledge will hang over the reader whenever something relevant is happening. You should make the relations between the relevant event and the prior knowledge fairly obvious too. Only when you make it apparent that the terrorists carrying the bomb is the same bomb that will be under that table will the reader be excited, or else its just another bomb.

While Azrie isn't wrong per se, I think he buried his main point in way too much text, not to mention its titled "Tension 101" but then veers off into character building, which while relevant, deserves its own post and in this case only serves to distract from what should be the main focus of the post: that is, tension building and resolution.

@Azrie the style you use also makes it unnecessarily hard and tedious to read for a guide. Some of your personal touches and voices are fine, but when you go to the extent of interrupting your guide to put in irrelevant thoughts such as:

...it just distracts the reader and splits their focus.
Well, I figured it would be nice to break it down into things, so that one can grasp the topic more easily. We all aren't the same.

Why is it that some authors pick the "show don't tell" much more easier than others? But well, if you say it's as easy as what ace said. Then sure. That's completely fine. It just means I wasted my time typing it out.

This guide is meant for new writers to actually get a grasp of the topic at hand. But if it's too wordy and useless then I suppose it is useless.

I personally thought, "wouldn't it be nice, to get broken down information"? Or simply something more specific other than the suspense thing. But I suppose not everyone thinks that way. So, I guess. Sorry for burning your eyes with this?
 

BenJepheneT

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Why is it that some authors pick the "show don't tell" much more easier than others? But well, if you say it's as easy as what ace said. Then sure. That's completely fine. It just means I wasted my time typing it out.
You didn't. Even with a guide as wordy as yours, there's still some value to be extracted from it. You showed an example to tension building, and how the writer can not only go about constructing it, but also flesh out character along with it. It's definitely not a waste of time.

This guide is meant for new writers to actually get a grasp of the topic at hand. But if it's too wordy and useless then I suppose it is useless.
(see above)

I personally thought, "wouldn't it be nice, to get broken down information"? Or simply something more specific other than the suspense thing. But I suppose not everyone thinks that way.
Look, you're just unlucky that the topic of suspense can be easily explained without broken down information. It's not something one should know, but something one should get a feel of. It's like karate. For all the theories and techniques, what really comes down is how well you apply it.
 

AliceShiki

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Well, I figured it would be nice to break it down into things, so that one can grasp the topic more easily. We all aren't the same.

Why is it that some authors pick the "show don't tell" much more easier than others? But well, if you say it's as easy as what ace said. Then sure. That's completely fine. It just means I wasted my time typing it out.

This guide is meant for new writers to actually get a grasp of the topic at hand. But if it's too wordy and useless then I suppose it is useless.

I personally thought, "wouldn't it be nice, to get broken down information"? Or simply something more specific other than the suspense thing. But I suppose not everyone thinks that way. So, I guess. Sorry for burning your eyes with this?
Don't take what TypeAxiom says to heart, he complains about pretty much everything. Your guide is good~
 

GDLiZy

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High tension doesn't always mean scaling up the scope of the conflict. It's about the impact that the conflict has on the readers. A world-ending bomb goes off and killed everyone in the world we had no idea who they are would always have a lesser impact to us than a simple bomb blew up the house of the protagonist who we had bonded with since the beginning of the book.

Also, I'm a firm believer of being a dick and holding off the tension as long as possible. Quentin Tarantino is the godfather of tension. You could find various video essay analysis his scene. If I were to recommend, then it would be the first Jew Hunter scene and the Restaurant Scene of his Inglourious Basterds.
 
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i guess the closest way to describe tension to me, is like when you pull a gacha and get the light symbol that means it's a legendary pull / SSR / UR.

...but unfortunately, it's a fukken dupe.
 
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