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Tension and Character

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. You can comment here or there.

Sometimes when I’m browsing in a book store, I open a book to a random page and read a few sentences. For several years, I’ve wondered what I’m looking for in that random page.

Finally, I’ve figured it out: voice and tension.

This week, I’m examining the second of these two craft elements: how writers use tension.

Sketch drawn by Karen Johnson

Sketch drawn by Karen Johnson

Tension is an essential element of story.

What pulls me forward and keeps me involved in the story?

Tension.

Yes, I might continue reading because of great prose or I love the character or I’m interested in the story.

But if there isn’t enough tension (for the type of book) I tend to set the book aside.

The tension needs to match the story and genre of course, but the techniques of building tension are the same in all stories.

Today my focus is on tension and character.

Here are four common ways a writer creates tension on a character level.

1. Struggles

The character is growing and developing throughout the story (internal arc) and facing outside elements of other characters and the environment (outer arc); these struggles create suspense and tension. A reader should feel the emotions and struggles of the character. Struggles—both internal and external to the character—create tension. This time of struggling (which is repeated over and over in a story) leads to the next tension builder . . .

2. Choice

The character must make choices, often hard, challenging choices. The process of choosing produces tension. Choices can be between good things or bad things, as a choice between good and bad won’t produce much tension.

Big choices create tension.

Little choices create tension.

Hard choices create tension.

All choices add tension to the story. At some point the character takes action. This leads to more tension: what will the result of the choice be? Often the choice propels the character forward into a greater challenge and more tension.

3. Flawed character

Great characters are flawed and imperfect individuals. There are many reasons to create flaws in a character. One benefit of a flawed character is that the reader can see the flaw and sense the choices the character might make, the reader sensing that the flaw will create all sorts of challenges. Even though we can see it coming, the car driving toward the edge of the cliff, we keep reading, hoping that maybe this time the character’s flaw won’t come into play. A flawed character also allows for surprise, which is another way of creating tension in a story.

4. Desire(s)

The character wants something she doesn’t have. This gap creates tension. Intense desire = intense tension. There will be an overall desire or want that is a throughline of the story as well as smaller desires (often goals) in each scene.

Building tension on an internal character level is critical as we craft our stories. These types of tensions help flesh out characters and bring them to life.

Next time, Wednesday, I’ll tackle tension in plot or the macro level of tension in a story.

~Sarah Blake Johnson

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