Now, while many readers that get truly involved with the stories we write online are mostly involved in the sometimes exaggerated drama of the situations we put our main characters through…I feel that it is often the tension delivered in a few key scenes, sprinkled here and there throughout, that truly captivates a reader’s attention and brings them to the edge of their seats. It’s this grinding on the nerves, along with a few tugs on the heart strings, that can really allow your audience to lose themselves in your writing and become fully engaged in every word of text in front of them, craving to read more as soon as possible.

If you can pull this off as a writer, then you have developed a very persuasive gift that you can use to carry you through many more stories in the future. Writing is a gift, but the stories you create and the way you build them up have a specific ‘science’ to them. It’s just a matter of learning to apply an instinctual formula to fit the context of your story in a variety of different ways. Tension in a story can make your work unbelievably addictive if done right! Once you learn the literary ‘mathematics’ of it all, you can write hundreds of new and amazing chapters and change things up enough to avoid becoming repetitive or predictable.

That being said, hehehe…my apologies to any of you who ever lost sleep trying to burn through any of my previously available chapters when you had other, more productive, things that you could have been doing with your evenings instead. It’s flattering, believe me. But I hope it’s not keeping you from work or school or family or anything else meaningful. That wouldn’t be a good thing.

Before I jump right into it all, let me start by sharing this particular scene with you guys. This is from the 1996 movie, “The Rock”. To this day, I still regard this particular few minutes of film to be some of the most intense moments in any movie that I’ve ever seen before. (There are others, sure. But I didn’t want to post anything that might have spoilers involved. If you haven’t seen ‘Seven’ with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman? Yeah, the end of that movie is INSANE as well! WATCH IT!!!) When viewing this scene, the tension starts off being pretty ‘action movie accurate’ from the get go, simply because of the ordeal itself. But notice how, minute by minute, things are elevated to some serious ‘Holy SHIT’ levels while watching everything unfold! The flawless acting, the motion of the camera angles, the swell of the music in tone and volume, the heated dialogue…soon being shouted at full volume, in what seems to be a no-win situation. To me, this is the perfect example of what creating and escalating tension is all about! Give it a look!

One thing that I really love about this scene is the fact that the tension is being pulled SO damned tight before a single bullet is fired! It’s not the action that creates the tension, but the build up to it. By the time the actual fighting begins, your audience is already wound up and ready to explode! Giving your scene the kind of power that you need it to have to set off the bomb that you’ve got planned to go off at any moment. Like…”JESUS! Where is this going??? This can’t be good!” This is what I like to call ‘punchline tension’. It’s designed to build up to a major turning point in your story, and the tension created is all about the ‘payoff’. VERY effective, because your readers can see it coming, but they hold on, regardless. Listen to the dialogue. It’s a chess game, basically. Both the General and the team leader begin by trying to reason with one another and inject a few logical points to get their opponent to consider changing their mind. When that doesn’t work, the team leader (Played by Michael Biehn) attempts a different approach by talking to the other soldiers in the room instead. However, the general (Played by Ed Harris), counters by reminding them all of their elevated and advantageous position. This is when people start yelling to force their point home. However, neither side is willing to back down, and once things have reached their most volatile moment…it doesn’t take much at all to set acts of extreme violence into motion! When the scene finally drops the hammer on the audience, the impact of it is crazy!!! You almost want to cringe and shout, “NO NO NO!!!! Ahhhh!!! Shit! This is BAD!!! SO BAD!!!” Congrats! You now have yourself a captive audience! Just keep in mind that the build up to a major moment in your story is just as important, if not MORE important, than the moment itself. This is how you lock your readers in. Think of it this way…

If your readers are sleepy and need to get up for work or school the next morning? If they have to go to the bathroom? If they’re due to perform open heart surgery in a few minutes…but they choose to finish your recent chapter instead? Then…SUCCESS!!! As it should be!

(By the way…don’t EVER delay open heart surgery for a story! LOL! That’s IMPORTANT! Jesus, what kind of monster are you? ::Giggles::)

To visualize…tension in your fiction is the ability to place two opposing forces at an equal distance of a line drawn in the sand. At first…they’re far enough away to possibly solve their conflict without losing control of the situation. However, as each side takes another step forward, pressure is applied, and things get more intense. They eventually end up in one another’s faces, and they keep inching forward until one side or the other eventually crosses the line. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

This particular building tension is all about the eventual payoff. That’s the focus. Draw your readers in and keep ‘tightening the screws’ until they’re ready to snap. And then…Boom!

There are other slight variations on the idea of creating high tension, however. So, while I have your attention, let’s touch on the majors.

Another scene that I would like to share with you all is from the 1989 movie, “Aliens”! I wish I had a clip that includes more of the build up to this moment, as I have always felt that it was truly brilliant. But, you know…Youtube! To this day, the sound of that ‘Aliens’ motion detector thingy creeps me the fuck out! GAH!!! Hehehe! Basically, there are alien creatures that are overrunning this deep space facility, and even though an entire team of well trained, heavily armed, soldiers, have been deployed to handle the situation…it is immediately clear that their enemy has been underestimated, and they find themselves completely overwhelmed by what’s going on! The tension, like every other part of the story, has an arc to it. It builds, it reaches its peak, and then shit hits the fan and it’s all a roller coaster ride downhill from there. Take a look…

Now, unlike the scene in “The Rock”, where all of the tension comes before the big action set piece…THIS scene takes the action and places it, center stage. When writing a hardcore action scene like this, the tension is built through pure chaos, instead of suspense. There’s a difference.

What begins as a very quiet, anticipatory, moment…suddenly gets boosted up to level 100 once they realize what’s really going on! Figuring out that the ‘animals’ they expected to outwit are smarter than they seem? That escalates tension. Having a young child now put in harm’s way? Escalated even more. Having a ‘traitor’ in their midst that they can’t trust with Burke? Another level of tension. And then, (R.I.P. Bill Paxton) when one of the main characters actually DIES during one of his most heroic, and totally badass, moments in the entire film…well that just shoots the tension through the ROOF! Because it lets the audience know that the stakes are so high that not everybody is guaranteed to make it out of this alive. Beloved main character or not!

Increasing tension rule? Take the plot armor off! TV shows like “Game Of Thrones”, “24”, and “The Walking Dead”, have used this technique to perfection. Yeah…that favorite character that you loved so much? They might not survive this episode! So keep biting your nails until you know they’re safe for sure! Give your characters multiple problems to handle all at once! HARD problems! And put a timer on them as an added bonus! They’ve only got a few seconds to do…’whatever’! Hehehe! It’ll be awesome, trust me!

Action scenes like this one demonstrate the value and serious ‘gut punch’ that tension can deliver to your audience when you need to give your story a powerful boost, and let your readers know that outcomes can be a bit more unpredictable than they think. For heavy action scenes, I find that creating many different levels of uncontrolled chaos works wonders.

There is a scene in “Gone From Daylight”, where the main character has gone to save a friend of his from a drug induced stupor on the edge of town…and he finds him, barely conscious, with the love of his life helping him out. As well as two of his friends, who are experts at fighting off enemies. The scene begins with people trying to stop the main character from taking his friend home, and a giant battle ensues. But it’s not just that one fight that is the focus of the scene. There’s an overwhelming series of events that all begin to take place at once. A dangerous fall, a rickety fire escape, a deadly battle between his best friends and an enemy of great strength, the need to protect his love interest…all of these things are going on simultaneously. With the focus, rapidly, shifting back and forth from one major emergency to another to keep the readers as wild and frantic as the characters in the scene. Putting your readers into the same panic that your main character is going through can also make an exciting scene so tense that they won’t be able to look away until they see how it ends! Watch the “Aliens” clip again! See how they bounce and back and forth from one big problem to another. Quickly! Zoom, zoom, zoom! So, for action scenes, use a flurry of different dilemmas in unison, and switch between them to keep the tension party going strong!

So…what if you’re not writing some kind of ‘punch in the face’ action scene in your story?

Well, I believe that all conflict, whether argumentative or displayed through a physical confrontation, is simply a harsh dispute and an even more harsh defense of differing ideologies. That always makes for the BEST conflicts, and the greatest moments of tension in whatever story it is that you’re trying to tell. (More on ‘Conflict’ in a future post, and how it differs from tension, as I explain it here.)

This type of tension is created mostly through dialogue, and may not result in some massive shootout or hand to hand combat scenario…but biting and well delivered dialogue can have the exact same effect if done correctly. As we all know, words can hurt more than any kick or punch delivered physically. Again, the same rules apply. You have two people approaching a line that’s been drawn in the sand, and one of them is eventually going to CROSS that line in an attempt to bully their opponent out of their opinion, and give up. This can be accomplished by giving some real thought to how both sides of an argument feel that they’re in the right, and are desperately trying to convince someone else to see the light. These kind of conflicts start off as an attempt to reason with the person standing in their way, and tension rises as the different ideologies begin to clash in a frustrating manner. The idea of “WHY can’t you see my point of view???” Builds to a crescendo, and…of course…a line is crossed. A writer can do amazing things when their readers can see and possibly sympathize with both points of view. By creating tension in this way, you force readers to tackle the conflict within themselves, and they may not know who to root for right away. Which can only make your story and it’s main conflict all the more engaging in the long run.

This scene is taken from season 2 of the Netflix show, “Daredevil”! It displays the clash of ideologies perfectly, in my opinion. You have two men that are, basically, vigilantes. They both work outside of the law in order to bring justice to their city. However, has one of them gone too far in killing the ‘scum’ that he sees no redemption in? Or is the main character deluded by the ‘good’ he thinks he’s doing, while allowing the crime and the murder to continue? Listen to the conversation they have, how it builds, and see if you can see the point in both sides of the equation?

Now…99% of that entire scene is just a conversation on a rooftop. With two determined characters trying hard to make their point. There’s a desire to feel vindicated. They feel that there is something to ‘win’ by shouting it out. But when neither side seems to be making any leeway with the other, tension builds, and drastic measures have to be taken to end the argument. Because logic and reason isn’t working anymore, and the line was crossed when one of the parties has given up on a diplomatic solution. They’ll never see eye-to-eye, and attempts to reach any common ground are over and done with. A slight variation of escalating tension, but it still works wonders, depending on the story you want to tell.

Now…ONE more, before I stop blabbing! Hehehe!

This method involves two sides that seem to be equally matched, but when pressure is applied and the heat gets turned up…a great truth is revealed. Creation of tension in this way comes from your audience siding with your protagonist, and truly ENJOYING the badgering and bulldozing of another character until they get the answers they’re looking for. This can range from beating a criminal suspect up for information, to a heated courtroom confession…as is brilliantly displayed in the infamous scene below…

Now, this might sound a bit weird to you, but it’s true. Words in a story have a ‘speed’ to them! Weird, right? If you want to have a calm, romantic, moment between characters after sex…where they’re just laying in bed and enjoying the afterglow? Then make your sentences long, and poetic, and highly descriptive. Draw the out, and capture the nuance and detail of the moment. But…when it comes to tense situations, heated arguments, or immediate threats? Keep it short! The shorter the sentence, the faster your audience will read it. Keep them dodging back and forth from one hyped up scene to another. Like ducking to dodge a bullet fired in their direction. It may sound silly, but it’s true. A ‘period’ in a sentence during a tense scene is like an editor’s cut during an action scene in a movie. When action happens, the cuts become quicker. More frantic. They create ‘energy’. That’s what you want to do with your words.

So shorten your sentences. It helps in creating a feeling of tension. It seems like such a small thing, but it works. People who argue interrupt one another. They SHOUT! They make insults and offensive comments. They say things to regain the upper hand at any cost. The ‘back and forth’ between characters is a weapon that you have at your disposal when trying to bring the stress and fury that your readers are looking for in the most crucial of moments. Shorter sentences, description, dialogue, creates a faster feeling of momentum in your writing. This is you, turning the volume up on the stereo and making this scene stand out as something to pay attention to.

Just don’t drag it out for TOO long! Anxiety can be exhausting. And it gets tiresome if you wait too long to give the audience what it’s looking for.

Anyway, that’s my take on creating and escalating tension in your work. As with everything else, it takes time and practice and a lot of ‘trial and error’. But once you get it down…it’s going to add some spice and flavor to everything you write from that point forward! So consider it a skill that you want to study and keep close to the hip for later use! Cool?

As always, I hope these little self-learned lessons over the years will help you guys out in some way! Good luck! And I’ll seezya soon!

Published May 12, 2019