3 Ways You’re Killing Your Story’s Tension

As a writer, your job is to torture your readers with tension. The fun of fiction is anticipation, and if your story doesn't have it your readers won't stick around. Here are 3 ways you might be killing your story's tension and losing readers.

As a reader, I love to be tortured.

I love the suspense, the waiting, the anticipation. It’s my favorite part of reading a story. Sure I love it when the love interests finally get together or the murderer is finally revealed, but the really fun part is the tension. The anticipation of waiting for it to happen. Because once it happens, well, that’s that. The conflict is resolved and the story’s over.

The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

-Oscar Wilde

I want the author to make the fun last for as long as possible. I want to be teased, tantalized, and tortured. I want the author to make me unable to resist turning page after page–even if it is 3am.

It’s sort of like Christmas. I was a strange child who loved waiting throughout the month of December for Christmas Day to finally arrive. Sure I loved opening my presents, too, but I loved the anticipation, the mystery, the suspense. Unlike my sister, I never begged to open gifts early. Why would I want to ruin the surprise? Even then I couldn’t resist tension.

Your goal as a writer is to make your novel like Christmas for your readers. Make them wait. Make it agonizing and exciting. Make them curious and eager. Then, when the moment finally arrives, give them what they’ve been waiting for.

Here are 3 mistakes to avoid when trying to create the most tension possible for your story.

1.You Make Things Too Easy

If your hero isn’t facing any challenges as he works towards his goal, or is overcoming them while hardly batting an eye, things are going to get boring really quick. Your hero needs to struggle. The struggle is what keeps your readers interested. It’s what makes them wonder whether or not the hero will win.

And while we’re talking about winning, here’s another important tidbit to remember: You must let your hero lose sometimes. If your hero wins every battle, the reader will have no doubt he’ll defeat the villain in the end without a problem. And that will destroy your tension.

Sometimes your hero will make the wrong decision. He won’t be fast enough, or strong enough. He will be outwitted by the villain. He won’t be able to save everyone. And that’s okay! It will deepen your hero’s struggle, and make for better fiction. Let your hero lose.

2. Your Characters Are Too Nice

If all of your main characters get along perfectly well through the whole story, your novel is going to be a drag for the reader. Fiction is always more fun when characters are at odds with one another. When they’re fighting, disagreeing, or mistrusting one another it creates conflict, and therefore tension. Readers can’t resist these sorts of dynamics.

Think about Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in BBC’s Sherlock. Sure they’re best friends, but Sherlock drives John nuts, and they often fight. How boring would the show become if they were perfectly civil and agreeable towards each other?

Or, what about the characters Cassandra Clare throws together in City of Bones? You have Simon who secretly loves Clary, but Clary doesn’t return the feelings. You have Jace who’s interested in Clary and jealous of Simon. Both Simon and Jace hate each other. Alec doesn’t like Clary or Simon and is irritated with Jace for breaking the rules. Isabell and Simon flirt with each other but Clary resents Isabell for toying with her best friend. Conflict and tension abounds.

If your characters are all sitting around a campfire holding hands and singing kum ba ya, it will suck all the tension from your story.

3. You Resolve Your Conflicts Too Early

Once, a writer asked if I could give them advice on their story’s middle. Readers had complained that the middle was too slow and boring. The writer couldn’t understand why or how to fix it. After reading the story the issue quickly became clear: the writer had resolved the conflicts too early.

With the conflicts resolved, there was no tension–no anticipation of what was to come. So there was nothing to carry readers through the story’s middle, and that was why they had lost interest. Eventually another conflict was introduced, but you don’t want to risk losing readers even for a moment.

Make sure you draw out your conflicts for as long as possible–don’t resolve them until the end of the story, if you can. And if your story demands that one conflict be resolved, make sure you introduce another either just before or directly after the resolution of the first. At every point in your story, make sure there is a question on the reader’s mind so that they must keep reading to find the answer.

>>>Psst, need more help on creating tension? I’ve written an entire e-book on the topic called “The Page-Turner Project”! Click to check it out!

What ruins a story’s tension for you as a reader? Let me know in the comments!

ink and quills blog signature 2

Share this!

7 thoughts on “3 Ways You’re Killing Your Story’s Tension

  1. Hello,
    I am so excited I found your blog! (through pintrest!) I am a young teenager who loves writing, I created a book club through email with girls around my age, younger, or older. We share our stories that we are writing and get feedback and encourage each other. We are, none of us, professional or very good as we are still learning. But it has been so amazing to have those girls there to help encourage each other.
    I subscribed for the Free email challenge. And it GREATLY helped me! I shared it with my club and they loved it. I’ve told them about you’re blog and it’s encouraged me and I’m sure them as well. I’ve already learned so much through you, so thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    Looking forward to reading more posts soon,
    -Grace Ison

  2. Awesome post. I really benefited from this. I realized that I’m doing number two. All of my characters get along just fine, but they have the ingredients necessary for some juicy conflict. Just found another way to make my MC’s life harder…

    Just had the pleasure of reading your e-book on villains. Great advice! I made several notes on things to improve because of it. Writing from their perspective is a great idea.

    Glad I found your blog!

  3. Great follow-up to your previous post. Resolving conflict too early is a big problem in a lot of fiction, even my own. The problem comes when I see how things will wrap up and then rush to the end without building on the tension.

  4. Nice post! I love tension. When I feel it, when I read it, I get goosebumps and I’m like, “Oh yeah… Here it comes…” I love it especially when characters who are both “good” or are friends actually have different goals in mind and they’re both aiming to fulfill their goals without the other knowing. It’s such a great conflict.

  5. Great suggestions in this post. What really turns me off, in regards to tension is when the tension is only in the dialogue or the resolution is in the dialogue. Even worse, when our hero has to chase down the bad guy. It’s boring. To say it another way, when a scene has purpose but very little meaningful action, it just kills it for me. Books do this all the time now.

    Conversely, relationship drama is not actual tension for me, unless it’s immense but that’s just me. I thought the relationships in Hunger Games lacked tension. I just don’t feel relationship tension, so there is none there for me.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. Great entry!

    I find that sometimes I escalate the conflict too fast. Characters start to fight, reach the peak of the fight within the page, and then deescalate back to basic normalcy by the end of the scene. (This probably goes under solving the conflict too easily.)

    I’ve also seen writers who escalate too slowly, specifically when there’s a secret involved. Normally when a story hinges on a secret, the gut instinct is to hold onto that secret until the bitter end. The show MERLIN, though in many ways delightful, was a huge sinner in this. The main secret is that Merlin has magic. For five seasons, that was the tension dangled for the audience.

    What the writers’ failed to realize is that secrets revealed can lead into wholly new, complex, and even more interesting tensions. The show SUITS does this extremely well–every half season or so, a major game player finds out the main character’s secret, and the whole dynamic of his environment changes. Again, and again, the stakes are upped by the reveal. This keeps the conflict high instead of letting it fizzle out or become frankly ridiculous (as it does in MERLIN).

    In order to maintain tension, it’s got to stay complex. Even if the conflict is hard and everyone isn’t nice, if the tension doesn’t continue to evolve in unforeseen ways, it gets boring quite quickly.

  7. Great post. You are not alone in loving tension!
    I remember days as a child I wouldn’t sleep because I had been reading all night. My favorite kind is when the plot inherently lends itself to tension (will they discover the main characters secret? How will they stop the world from being destroyed? How will they stop the killer?). High concept usually equates to high tension.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *