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 as a novel unfolds. 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 that moment. Because once it happens, well, that’s that. The conflict is resolved and the story is over.

Oscar Wilde put it aptly when he said:

The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

-Oscar Wilde

When I open a book 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 the weird kid who loved waiting 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.

So how can you keep the reader’s anticipation high in your novel until that big moment when the conflict is finally resolved? Here are 3 mistakes you’ll need avoid to handle your tension like a pro.

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.

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. Lack of struggle means lack of conflict, and conflict is what story is all about.

When there’s conflict there will be a winner and loser in the outcome. This leaves your reader to wonder nervously whether the hero will succeed or fail. And although it might go against your instincts to do so, 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 throughout the whole story, your novel is going to be a real drag for the reader. Fiction is always more fun when characters are at odds with one another. When they fight, disagree, or mistrust one another it creates conflict, and therefore tension. Readers can’t resist these sorts of dynamics.

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.Think about Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in the BBC series 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 in every episode? Yawn.

Or, what about the dynamics of the characters Cassandra Clare throws together in City of Bones?

You have Simon who secretly loves Clary, but Clary doesn’t return his 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–if you can, don’t resolve them until the end of the story. And if your story demands that one conflict be resolved, make sure you introduce another either just before or directly after its resolution.

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. Will the hero slay the dragon? Will the girl find her brother? Will the cop catch the criminal?

Keep readers wondering and you’ll keep them reading.

page turner project side barNeed 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!






5 Ways to Increase Your Story’s Tension

Is your story dragging? Learn 5 strategies for increasing your story's tension to keep readers flying through the pages!Tension is a beautiful thing in fiction. It’s so subtle that readers (and often writers!) don’t realize its presence on the page, but trust me, it’s pull is powerful. It’s the stuff of page-turners, what keeps readers on the edge of their seats and awake until 2am. It’s one of the greatest tools you can wield as a writer.

Last week, we talked about how conflict, tension, and plot all relate to one another, and how they function in a story. Today, we’re going to narrow our focus and explore how you can make tension a force to be reckoned with in your novel.

Because a story without tension, well…that’s not a story that thrills readers. And you want your story to be a thrill ride, yes? (Hint: Of course you do!)

What is Tension?

Tension is the anticipation of what will happen next in a story. It’s driven by the reader’s concern for the characters and/or their curiosity to know the outcome of a conflict. Conflict is the clash between two opposing sides; it is the foundation of your story, and it is from conflict tension arises.

For example, in Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, the conflict begins when Katniss takes Prim’s place to fight in the games. Katniss doesn’t want to fight, but the rules of her society leave her with no choice. Thus, a conflict is created between her personal morals and desires and her society’s laws, which is played out in the arena.

The tension of the story arises from the reader’s anticipation of whether or not Katniss will survive the games. This is driven by both concern for the character and curiosity to know the outcome of the conflict.

Why is Tension Important to Story?

Tension is the “secret ingredient” that keeps readers turning pages. A story without tension is lifeless. It drags on and on until the reader can’t stand the boredom a moment longer and casts it aside.

And in that moment an author’s worst nightmare is created. So many writers fear people reading their story, but you know what’s worse, what you should really be afraid of? Writing a story that doesn’t get read all the way through. *Cue screams of writerly horror*

That doesn’t have to be your novel’s fate, friend! Let’s avoid that dreaded scenario and dig into some strategies for creating tension that will help carry your readers from page one all the way to The End.


1. Tell Your Characters “No”

One easy way to create tension is to avoid giving your characters what they want. I know we love our characters, but as an author you have to be mean to them. Which can be hard. It’s tempting to grant them their every desire like a spoiled child, but if you do you’ll end up with a dull story.

Ask yourself: What does my hero want? Does he want to win the heart of the girl? To study at a prestigious college? To avenge his friend’s murder?  To buy his own boat so he can sail the world? Whatever his goal or desire, throw as many obstacles and complications into his plans as you can to keep him from getting it. This will leave your readers to wonder whether or not he will be able to succeed, thus creating tension.

2. “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”

If your suspicions weren’t already confirmed with the above tip, allow me to elaborate: your job as an author is to make your characters’ lives miserable. Which can be fun sometimes, in a sadistic sort of way. Whatever situation you put your characters in, ask yourself what you can do to make it worse.

For example:

Let’s say Tom is on his way to his first date with the cute girl he just asked out. But on the way there his car gets a flat. He tries to call for help, but he realizes he forgot his phone at home.

He starts to walk, but then it begins to rain and his new suit gets soaked. He flags down a passing car and the driver offers him a lift.

But not long after, flashing blue lights appear behind them and the driver leads the police on a high-speed chase. Turns out the driver just robbed a bank, and when the cops catch up to him Tom is arrested by association. Needless to say, Tom is having a very bad day.

Getting the idea? This won’t be much fun for your character, but it’s fun for your reader! No one wants to read about how Tom went on a date and everything went fantastic. Yawn. Keep asking: How can I get my hero into trouble? How can I make this problem worse? How can I keep him from getting what he wants?

3. Create Flawed Worlds

Building flaws into your story’s world is a great way to create conflict and tension. The world in which we live isn’t perfect, and this should be reflected in your story.

Is your story dragging? Learn 5 strategies for increasing your story's tension to keep readers flying through the pages!For example, in The Hunger Games the whole idea of a televised fight to the death between teens is morally wrong to us, but is accepted as normal within that society. When members of that society begin to rebel against the accepted norm, it creates tension.

In The Mortal Instruments series, Cassandra Clare creates tension among characters by making the Shadowhunters and Downworlders hold prejudices against one another.

In Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, cyborgs are outcasts and viewed as less than human in their society. This prejudice creates tension between the heroine Cinder, who happens to be a cyborg, and other characters in the story.

Know the issues of your story’s world. Not only does this give your world more depth and realism, but it presents you with more opportunities for conflict, which you can use to your advantage to create tension.

4. Agree to Disagree

You know what can make a story a snooze-fest really fast? When all of the characters are getting along. Everyone likes one another, and no one argues or disagrees. Everyone is happy and everything is peaceful. It’s a few fuzzy animals short of a Disney movie.

This is a danger-zone for your story! You must throw an apple of discord among your characters. (Preferably a poisoned one).

Sure in real life we want to avoid conflict and we want everyone to like us, but this makes for boring fiction! Remember, story is all about conflict. Characters are always more interesting when they’re not getting along.

So let your characters hate each other. Let them argue about how to solve the problem at hand. Let them squabble and disagree. Let them lie to each other, manipulate, or keep secrets. Your reader will thank you for it!

5. Raise the Stakes

Finally, one of the best ways to increase the tension in your story is to raise the stakesthe reward or consequence of your hero achieving or failing his goal.

For example, in The Hunger Games, the stakes for Katniss winning or losing the games is her life. Later in the book, the stakes are raised when it’s announced the Game Makers will allow two winners. Katniss’ reward for success has been increased because she now has the chance to save Peeta. She now has more to lose than just her own life.

Another example can be found in Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones. The villain, Valentine, captures Clary’s mother in the beginning of the book, and towards the climax he also captures Clary’s love interest, Jace. This raises the stakes because if Clary can’t find Valentine not only will she lose her mother, but she’ll also lose the boy she’s beginning to fall in love with.

When you raise the stakes of your story, you instantly increase the reader’s anticipation to find out what happens next.

page turner project side barOf course, there are many other ways to create tension in your story than the few listed above. Be on the lookout for ways to create tension at every turn and you’ll be well on your way to creating a thrilling ride for your reader!

Need more ideas on how to create tension? My e-book “The Page-Turner Project” includes 36 ideas for creating tension, plus more tips. Click to check it out!

What’s your favorite way to increase the tension in your story? Share your thoughts below!