No, nothing to do with my considerable time constraints today.

I’m talking about tension in a story. And how I got it wrong for a considerable portion of mine.

It started at the very beginning of my Doorways crits. My one CP extraordinaire, M Pax, kept asking me to let her see into one MC’s past. And I wouldn’t, because, well, she was just as coy with me. Why should I share info when my MC wanted to let it come out in her own good time?

Besides, I thought, the mystery about her past just adds to the tension.

True. But as this post points out, it adds to the wrong sort of tension. After I read this post, I got to thinking about Doorways. And realized what a huge mistake I’d made. I ended up spending the greater part of my day rooting out and fixing it. Luckily for me, a few subtle changes were enough, but it could have been a lot worse. Which is why I’m writing about it todayΒ as well.

Real tension in a story comes from the fact that characters have questions and goals. We readers experience tension because they don’t know if those questions will be answered or the goals attained. We hope they will be, but we know that possibly they won’t. So we read on, hoping (and if the writer is really good, praying) that things will end up the way we and the character want them to.

The reason why we care this much is that by the time the goals and questions become known, we feel like we know the character. We can’t care if we don’t see why the goals and question are important to the character. So you can’t make us care if you don’t give us the information we need to bond with the characters.

Yes… the mystery in the character’s past adds to tension, but unless it’s the foundation of the plot (e.g. if the character’s question is about his/her past), it will make the reader hurl the book to the nearest wall.

The blog post above gave a few examples of bad tension, so I’m just going to let you go there to read them. But to sum it up, I’m now thinking about tension like this: Tension should be forward looking. It should be about the story going forward to the end and about whether the end will be the one the reader wants. Β 

If your tension is back looking, i.e. coming from the fact that the reader isn’t being allowed to see into a main character’s past, odds are pretty great that you’ll be annoying the life out of your reader.

Trust me. When I put my reader cap on and read my MC’s intro, I wanted to strangle the writer.

So do you also write your tension to be back-looking? How do you make sure that the tension in your story doesn’t annoy the reader?

PS: Mary. So sorry about Callan. She’s a lot better now. ;-P

29 thoughts on “Tension

  1. I'm not an expert on tension, so this was probably a good post for me to read. But clearly if you're holding stuff back in a way that makes the reader feels jerked around, it's probably going to annoy them.

  2. I'm glad you figured out the problems. Sometimes it's hard to see what other people are talking about. And it sounds like you easily managed to make the changes. You've got me thinking about my current WIP at the moment…

  3. Great post! You're right – we need to understand enough about character's background, personality, etc. to fully comprehend the stakes, and that's what drives tension.

  4. Your cartoon summed up tension very nicely. I'll keep that image in my head while I'm writing that next scene, and I'll bet it will help.

    Thanks for that and the great post.

  5. Hmmm I thought the tension seemed okay. The two boys and Callan definitely have issues…then Darion and Gawain…lots of tension there, then the whole scene at the tree (that had me on pins and needles…was the guy going to die?) So not sure if you are just being hard on yourself or not. Hmmm.

  6. There's always such a balance to everything in writing, isn't there? How and when to put tension, what to reveal to the reader, and on and on. Sometimes there seems to be a fine line between “making the reader want more” and “making the reader want to throw the book against the wall.” πŸ˜‰

  7. This is v helpful—I am trying to write the backstory to my MC, and now I know I need to trickle it in throughout— not keep it a suspense!

  8. Good advice! I'm worried about my MS. I tried to fit in as much back story for my characters as I could, but, now that I'm thinking about it, there may be something that I'm missing or could perhaps put in earlier to keep a reader interested. I think I subconsciously try to add tension through intentionally awkward moments and action scenes. Good luck with your MS!(:

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