No $#!7, there I was: writing about the most horrifying moment of my life. I wrote, and I wrote. I sure did write the heck out of that story, which was a story about the most horrifying moment of my life. I was so scared in that moment. That’s why I wrote about it. It really was horrifying. And it happened to me.
And in the end, it was about as interesting as the paragraph you just read, which is to say: not very.
why is tension important?
There are two basic reasons that people continue reading a thing they’ve started. One is that they’re curious about something, and the other is that they’re worried about something. Curiosity is a large part of what drives humorous writing; worry is what drives suspenseful writing.
But in order to make your readers worry about a character or event in your writing, you have to give them a reason to care about the character (yes, nonfiction writing has characters) and the outcome. That might mean making the character sympathetic, or giving the reader a reason to be personally invested in the outcome of the event one way or another. Even a review of a cookbook can have that kind of suspense: if the recipe comes out as predicted, the reader may want to make it for their own supper.
So how do I add tension to my writing?
Sure, you say, it’s great to know that I should make people care about my stories. That is after all the heart of the “so what” – did you care? But as advice it’s about as useful as when I needed to know how to spell something as a kid and my teacher would tell me “look it up in the dictionary.” Lady, if I could look it up I’d know how to spell it already, amirite?
So let’s take a look at some ways to generate tension. You don’t necessarily need to use all of these in a story, but if you’re using none of them you’re probably doing something wrong.
start the story at the last possible minute
What does that mean? It means if you’re telling a story about how you got in a car accident at 4:15 pm don’t start your story at 2:30 when you got into the car, tell about the fifty things you packed, and describe an hour and a half of driving before you start talking about the rain, the sleet, and the great big truck with the baby duck painted on its side.
If you have details that are important for your setup but happened long before the action of your story, consider using flashbacks or just not explaining how the can of Coke got into the car. Is it really that important? Most people have some sort of detritus rolling around in the footwells of their backseat. Instead of explaining how the day before you took your son to football practice and he always gets a can but you like bottles so it wasn’t your can and you didn’t even know it was in there because you thought he took it… what does this have to do with the accident that couldn’t be disposed of in a sentence like “just then a can of Coke – part of the detritus of childrearing – rolled out of the back footwell, through the space under my seat, and between the pedals?”
keep the reader asking what comes next
If you telegraph the next event throughout your entire story, a reader has very little incentive to keep reading. Instead, if you plan to use foreshadowing, use it to signal one important but unlikely (at least, from what the reader knows in the first paragraph or two) event, so that the reader will be left wondering “well how is the Barbie doll going to get halfway up the tree?”
Remember that in writing, just like in physics, tension is stored energy. The more heavy lifting you can get the reader to do in generating that energy, the more tension you’ll create.
raise the stakes
I remember reading a story submitted to the grid a while back in which one character was constantly worried about “getting caught” doing the thing they were doing in the story. While that could have been an effective storytelling device, the author didn’t include any details about what would happen if the character was caught, and in fact partway through the story the character was caught, received a very mild and ineffective scolding, and went right back to doing the thing, as concerned about getting caught as ever.
In that case, the reader was not particularly concerned with whether the character was caught, even if they cared deeply about her, because they were aware that there were basically no consequences for being caught. If the consequences had been severe, the reader perhaps would have been as worried as the character.
Raise the stakes: Show us what you have to lose if you’re in an accident. Are you driving without a license? Is your kid in the backseat? Is this the only way you can get to work and you can’t afford to replace the car? Show us what will happen if the outcome is unfavorable.
share the pain
Like the protagonist in the story above, your characters may be aware of the doom hanging over their head. Or they may not! Either way, you can use that to heighten your reader’s sense of anticipation. Maybe the reader and character are sharing a moment, or maybe the reader understands the consequences the character doesn’t. The latter can be particularly effective in a story about your childhood (or someone else’s) where the reader ends up identifying with the worries of the adult side characters while the main child character skips blissfully over the edge of a cliff that everyone but them sees coming.
take a breath
In May 2009, the Twitter account @DrFNFurter made its initial three tweets:
“So come up to the lab”
“And see what’s on the slab”
“I see you shiver with antici …”
As aficionados of the Rocky Horror Picture Show know, this is a line from a song. There’s a long pause, and then the word is completed. The pause allows the tension to build over the course of the silence.
Exactly five years later to the day, the account made its fourth, and final, tweet: “…pation.”
Allowing some space between knowing what’s coming and the actual denouement gives the reader a chance to look away, take a breath, and not feel inundated with artificial drama, while still allowing the buildup of … anticipation.
let it go
One of the most important things to remember about writing stories with tension in them is that you should resolve the tension. There are a number of ways to do that, and not all of them wrap up the events of the story with a tidy bow. But it’s important to signal to your reader that the moment of crisis has, at least for now, passed.
Now you know a little bit about how to create buildup in your writing, how to release tension, and why you need to do both things. Give it a shot in your nonfiction as well as your fiction. Remember, stories about you are still, at heart, stories. And like the pig said,
That’s all, folks!