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Tension and Plot

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

On Monday we looked at tension and character. Today we’ll consider some tension techniques at the plot level.

A fast-paced adventure story. Thrillers, suspense novels. All packed-packed-packed with tension. Page turners.

“Quiet” novels, nonfiction, humor, school stories. These are also filled with tension. Page turners.

Macro tension is what we most often think of when we think of tension in plot. Tension can arise from questions—questions the reader is asking and questions the characters ask themselves.

A big question is: What comes next?

Other big questions are: What happens? What happens to the characters? How does it end?

The larger story questions are macro tension.

How do we create this tension with plot? There are many ways. Here are a few:

1. Premise

The big story question sets up the tension (and level and type of tensions) in a story. During early revisions (or better yet, during the initial writing of the story) a writer can adjust the premise to insure sufficient tension. Something needs to happen in the book, something interesting and challenging.

2. Plot design

The tension in most books will become more intense as the story progresses. (There are exceptions of course.)

Also, there is an inverse relation between tension and character comfort.

3. Stakes

The bigger the stakes, the higher the tension. Note: not every book needs to be a life and death thriller. To a child character wanting a friend on the first day of school, the stakes of sitting alone can be huge to that character. Stakes create tension because the reader worries about the character(s).

4. Conflict

Tension comes from relationships between characters. Conflict will be between both the protagonist and antagonist, as well as between the protagonist and her friends and others in her life. Relationships, the bumps, the head-on wrecks—all sorts of interactions create tension on a story level.

5. Complications and obstacles

Complications and obstacles thwart the character from getting what she wants. These usually will add tension at the scene or chapter level, or for a section of the book.

6. Subplots

Subplots keep the reader invested and reading forward while anxiously awaiting the answer to the big story question of how does it end. Subplots are one way to keep the middle of a story from sagging (losing tension.) Each subplot will have an arc of its own with its corresponding tensions.

Plot tensions make books exciting to read and let us see characters in action. As writers we control the pacing by how we craft the tensions in our stories. All stories can have intense page turning tension, whether or not the book is a thriller or a “quiet” school story.

Friday, I’ll be back in the tollbooth for one more look at tension. What aspect of tension? It’s a key one. (Yes, I’m creating suspense, a type of tension by not telling you my topic.)

~Sarah Blake Johnson

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