How to Create Tension in Fiction

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You've probably heard about tension and know it's a big deal, maybe even the biggest deal in storytelling, but why? What is tension, and why is it so important to storytelling?

What Is Tension?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, tension is defined as:
  • a strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each other
Applied to the wonderful world of storytelling, tension is all about one simple question: What will happen next? This uncertainty creates strain or anxiety in your readers, and the only way to relieve it is to keep reading and find out what happens next.

Tension and release is actually a cycle that builds up over the course of a story through what's known as pacing. Check out this awesome video explanation.

Tension is not conflict. Even though you will see the terms used interchangeably in some instances, they are not the same thing. They are cause and effect. Conflict is two opposing characters or forces at odds with each other in your story that usually fight in some physical way. Thus conflict provides a foundation for tension, but simply having two opposing forces in your story does't automatically create a sense of uncertainty about what will happen next.

Why Is Tension Important?

As Alfred Hitchcock said, "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." 

Tension is building up to a bang. Conflict may provide that bang, but you can't have conflict in every scene because that would be chaotic, exhausting, and ultimately more desensitizing than satisfying. 

Writing a novel or any long work is 90% building up anticipation and 10% dropping bombs. Therefore, tensions is imperative if you want to keep your audience reading for long. If they aren't constantly asking what will happen next, how can you expect them to invest in your story or care about the bomb drop in the next chapter or an ending hundreds of pages later? You can't. They didn't agree to that.

A story typically builds tension from the very beginning by asking one big question that's vital to the outcome of the story. This is called the dramatic question, and everything else in your story revolves around it.


Batman Begins

Dramatic Question: Will Bruce Wayne save Gotham? 
Building Tension: Will Bruce overcome his fears? Will he become Batman? Can he redeem himself? Can he protect Rachel? Can he defeat Ra's al Ghul?

The Emperor's New Groove

Dramatic Question: Will Kuzko build Kuzcotopia?
Building Tension: Will Kuzco ever become human again? Will he survive his journey through the jungle? Will he learn to work with Pacha? Will he figure out Yzma is trying to kill him? Will he be able to take her down and reclaim his throne?

Real nail-biters, am I right?

Creating Tension

So how do you create tension in your own stories? Start by identifying the dramatic question and then begin developing a plot that creates a series of sequences or tension and release arcs all leading up to and escalating the the final climax and release. This will answer your dramatic question once and for all.

Useful plot devices for creating tension:

Ticking Clock: Will your character complete his mission before time runs out?
Ironic Tension: Will the character figure out what the audience already knows?
Dramatic Tension: What will happen on the page right now?
Sexual Tension: Will they or won't they?
In Media Res:  How did these characters get here?

Of course, all questions need answers. Answering the most immediate question is a release that concludes a particular arc within your story before you move onto the next. This release is as important as the tension itself because you don't want to leave your readers hanging forever or keep them in the dark so long they just give up and stop reading. The trick is to ask a question, answer it, and then that answer leads to another question and another tension and release arc until your dramatic question is finally answered.

In the end, you want the tension and releases arcs of your story to look something like this:

(image source)

When Tension Goes Wrong

Ever heard of predictability? This is what happens when tension goes wrong. The purpose of tension in fiction is to keep readers asking, "What will happen next?" If they already know the answer, your tension has failed and your story has become predictable.

This typically happens when you use a plot device or trope that's been used too many times before. Sure, plot devices becomes tropes for a reason--they worked. Until they were used so many times they became predictable, thus negating all efforts to create tension in the first place.

Predictability can also occur when you write yourself into a corner allowing for only one possible outcome, just like a dog backed into a corner has only one option: fight. So be unpredictable, allow for multiple possible outcomes to every scenario in your story, and keep your readers guessing!

Other ways tension can go wrong:

  • it drags on too long
  • it's over too quickly
  • it doesn't tie into the dramatic question
  • there's nothing at stake
  • the question you ask is too confusing
Building just the right amount of tension is a real balancing act, and it takes practice. The best way to learn is to keep writing and analyzing your work, get feedback, and experiment.


This is just an introduction to the subject of tension! If you want to become an expert tension-builder, take the time to study the stories you read and watch. Write down every question you ask yourself as you experience the story. Note when you most do and don't want to know what happens next. Determine why. Now study your notes. See any patters? What have you learned that you can apply to your own stories?

Want to learn even more? Check out these awesome articles and videos:

My Favorite Article About Tension
Again, This Epic Video About Pacing
How to Create Tension in Horror (video)
25 Things You Should Know About Tension
10 Plot Devices for Increased Tension 

If you have any questions about this article, please ask below in the comments! I will do my best to answer and help you come to a deeper understanding of the subject and apply it to your storytelling.
I originally wrote this for :iconnanoplotmo: last October.

You DO NOT NEED MY PERMISSION TO USE THIS HOWEVER YOU WANT. You can change it, alter it, take stuff out, add stuff in, share it with anyone online or in real life however you want. Go nuts. If you think it's useful and think other people will also find it useful, PLEASE share it and spread it around as much as you want however you want. I support the free sharing of information and knowledge. Credit is appreciated, but it's not strictly enforced.

Click here to check out my other writing guides.
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SagelySam's avatar
immensly helpful!
illuminara's avatar
I'm glad you like it!
Bladebrent's avatar
Nice article.  I'd have to agree on alot of this.  I remember watching Space Chimps (as it was clearly a cinematic experience on par with Lord of the Rings that I just had to watch) and the ending was very annoying cause it kept bringing up a new dramatic problem immediately after the last one was finished, like they had all these possible climaxes but didn't want to settle on just one, so it got really tiresome after the 4th time they did it and you just stopped caring.  It is interesting to look back on good stories and think about how they build tension properly, or even relieve tension if you pay attention.  Even tropes can be non issues in alot of cases if you know how to stop them from being cliche and don't be too formulaic and predictable.
illuminara's avatar
Yeah that's a pacing issue and probably an under estimation of peoples' attention spans.
wolfish-vampiregirl's avatar
Thank you so much for writing this! It perfectly explains what my story has been lacking and how to go about fixing it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!
illuminara's avatar
You're welcome! I'm glad you found it so useful, and good luck with your story! =D
queenofeagles's avatar
This is really helpful, thank you very much!
illuminara's avatar
You're welcome! =D
Hyenax's avatar
I feel like I always understood that you should contrast intense scenes with "easy to watch" scenes, but this explains it really well and there's loads I learned from this, so thanks :)
illuminara's avatar
You're welcome, and I'm glad you found it useful!
WokenbladeRiku's avatar
I feel like I've read this before.
Then again, it's always extremely helpful. Once again, you provide the best resources :D
illuminara's avatar
You probably saw it when I first posted it to :iconnanoplotmo: back in October. :aww:
WokenbladeRiku's avatar
Ah, I'm not crazy, then :P
endlessstarryskies's avatar
I am currently in a writing fiction course in college and our main focus is on creating a short story. I was just thinking about how to organize my plot line and what I wish to write. This is a very helpful resource you have created. I will refer to this if I have any issues come up with my plot line. It might help me get my head into the right realm of thinking. Thank you. :)
illuminara's avatar
I'm glad it helped! Good luck with your short story! :aww:
KalineReine's avatar
This is really useful, and helpful. Great job! ♥ 
illuminara's avatar
Thanks, I'm glad you like it! =D
KalineReine's avatar
You're very welcome. ^^
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