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Favorite Writing Advice: Adding Tension to Your Story

One simple idea can give your story much-needed tension.

One phrase — one sentence, really — can help most authors make their stories more tense, more dramatic, more gripping.

“If your characters ever meet you, they should punch you in the face.”

I don’t know who said it, but that may be the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, most authors don’t seem to follow it.

So what does it mean? How do you get your characters angry enough that were they real, they’d want to punch you silly for all the things you put them through?

Four Ways to Add Tension to Your Book

  1. Don’t take it easy on your characters. Follow the three D’s: Disappointment, Danger, and Dire Straits. In fact, if you can, have your character experience all three. No matter what the genre, your character can experience disappointment. Even in a hard-boiled war novel, a character can watch a comrade die, lose the battle, or fail to get promoted. Even in the softest piece of chicklit, a character can experience danger, whether a threat from a lover, the fear of a secret romance being discovered, or a vengeful neighbor/relative/friend. Not all danger has to be physical or deadly. It can simply be a threat to a way of life, security, finances, etc. In other words, dire straits. Whatever you choose, give your character obstacles to overcome.
  2. Don’t wrap up problems too quickly. Remember Indiana Jones? Every time it looked like a scene was about to end, something went wrong. Those scenes went on for ten minutes without ever feeling like it. Yet, authors often seem to be in a rush to wrap up their characters’ problems. Just remember, nice, neat chapter endings don’t push the story forward. It’s rare that an argument ends with a nice cup of coffee and a heartfelt apology, so why should it for your character? If your character is locked in a room (whether real or metaphorical), don’t have them suddenly discover a hidden key. Make them work to get through their problems, even if it takes several pages or chapters.
  3. Keep the problems coming. One problem should lead to another, should lead to another, should lead to another… or maybe three or four problems at once, because if you think juggling three balls at once is hard, try juggling them when they’re on fire. Problems can wax and wane, but they should keep coming, and in different spheres of the character’s life. Personal, professional, expected, unexpected — you name it, keep ’em coming. It doesn’t have to be a breakneck pace, but it has to be often enough to hold our attention — unless, of course, you’re writing a thriller — then keep it at a breakneck pace.
  4. Create problems big and small. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus faced the big problem — the trial — as well as even bigger problems, like an entire culture’s prejudices, a small-town’s biases, threats to his children, and smaller ones, like raising Scout and Jem as a widower. Heck, he even faced a rabid dog. Not all problems need to be huge. After all, life gives us big problems and small problems, often simultaneously, so mix it up. And while you have to build your problems to build tension, meaning your conclusion needs the biggest problem of all, don’t be afraid to drop in small difficulties, even annoyances, along the way. It will keep your readers engaged and rooting for your character(s) to persevere.

So there it is. Make your characters hate you. After all, if you knew someone was pulling the strings — playing God with your life — wouldn’t you be angry if they didn’t take it easy on you? For not making your life cotton candy and milkshakes? That might make for a good life, but it makes for bad fiction. In the end, I want my characters to metaphorically punch me in the face while screaming, “How could you do his to me? What’s wrong with you? Don’t you have children of your own?”

Which is part of the problem. A book, and by extension, its characters, is an author’s baby. Oh, it’s easy to heap misfortune on your villain(s), but it’s hard to hurt your heroes. You want your antagonist to get his comeuppance, but good authors come down hard on their protagonists, too. They try the very souls of the characters they love. It’s not personal; it’s just good literature.

So, ask yourself when writing your story, “Would this character want to punch me in the face after this?”

If not, find a way to make sure they do. And if they do, make sure they go for a knock-out blow.


This is the first in an occasional series of articles on my favorite writing advice. I hope it helps!

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2 comments on “Favorite Writing Advice: Adding Tension to Your Story

  1. The Uncertain Scribe
    December 11, 2016

    This is excellent advice, thank you. I need to stretch my conflicts out longer and not wrap them up so quickly.

  2. theryanlanz
    March 18, 2017

    Hi John! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured as a guest post on http://www.ryanlanz.com on April 15th. As usual, it has your credit/bio/link. Thanks!

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This entry was posted on August 14, 2016 by in Fiction, Writing and tagged , .
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