Tension Makes The Story Go ‘Round

When people talk about page-turners of stories, they’re talking about tension.

Tension in a story is a great thing. It is anticipatory rather than the negative connotation that many associate with the word.

Basically, tension is the opposite of predictability. When a reader feels they know the ending and there is nothing holding their attention, they will either end the book early, finish it just to finish it, or flip forward to finish it even faster. There is no enjoyment in any of those scenarios.

When I wrote about Journey or Destination, I discussed how some authors focus upon an ending but shortchange the middle of their books, stuffing them with filler.

Filler doesn’t create tension; it builds impatience and annoyance in readers.

A good example of filler would be characters following leads to dead-ends, and a sense from the reader that the author planned the dead-end just to satisfy word-count requirements. A story should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer. There’s no shame in creating a more compact narrative, even if Stephen King once described (in Different Seasons) the novella as a sort of literary oddity no one really wants (not his words – his own description in the Afterword is rather straightforward and amusing).

A page-turner of a story never feels padded, and a reader feels that skimming or flipping ahead means they will miss something – and probably something important or at least very interesting.

There are different ways to build tension in a story. One way is by using shorter chapters with cliffhanger endings that lead directly into the next chapter. This is a tactic Kelley Armstrong has discussed she likes to employ for that specific reason. Her stories tend toward mystery-solving, melded with internal conflicts in the main character and romantic entanglements to also be resolved. So she pulls the story forward on typically three fronts.

Engaging characters and a sense of something new always around the corner is another way. Patricia Briggs has done this quite well – her first Mercy Thompson book Moon Called was still introducing characters and background (along with the main plot moving forward) halfway into the book. The key to Briggs’s style is discovery. She is a world-builder who paints on a broad palette. I would liken that approach to Stephen King’s style, who also prefers to populate his stories with multiple characters and many moving parts – main storylines interwoven with smaller story elements.

Thrillers thrive on “always something new” as well, although unlike world-builders there is still a pervasive sense of linearity – moving toward an ultimate resolution – similar to the mystery format. Thrillers tend to pack in mini-climaxes throughout the storyline, with new revelations pushing characters and story ever-closer toward the ending goal.

None of these approaches are absolutely distinct and more often there are hybrid elements involved. As I noted above, Kelley Armstrong delves both into external and internal crises, but also often involves a romantic aspect. And romance is another area that builds tension. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be ‘shipping or “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” for Twilight or “Jaters” and “Skaters” for Lost.

Readers who feel invested in the characters and are presented with options get to feel tension when the choice of who-gets-whom isn’t certain.

I tend to feel that every chapter should have a purpose. If it feels rudderless, it doesn’t work. Same with wading through a chapter just to get to the other side. Not a fun experience and not consistent with tension-building.

I really do believe that readers can sense when a writer is having fun, enjoying themselves as they experience a joy at discovery akin to the reader’s. This kind of excitement translates through the story and finds an echo in the reader’s enjoyment.

So no chapter should ever feel like a trudge for the writer, because it will be even more so for the readers forced to trudge alongside (or skim ahead, hoping to escape).

Good chapters stand alone. They have a strong center that holds. They have themes. They have a sense of real purpose and they advance the characters and story in a real and meaningful way.

A good way to test a chapter for whether it does this is to try to give it a title other than “Chapter Twenty-Four.” If you can easily come up with a single word (or even two words) that encapsulate what the chapter is about, you probably have a good feel for the purpose that chapter was intended to serve. If the writer can’t sum up the chapter better than “walkin’ through the jungle, walkin’ through the jungle, walkin’ through the jungle” (to borrow a phrase one Lost-blogger used to employ in her recaps to skim the scenes where nothing was happening), then perhaps that chapter or scene isn’t really necessary. Or perhaps it could at least be compressed, or incorporated into something more exciting.

I would strongly recommend any writer to always think tension with the turn of every chapter and every scene. Keep that word ever-mindful and use it to the best of one’s ability. Readers will appreciate it and it’s what will keep them turning the pages and always wanting more.

4 thoughts on “Tension Makes The Story Go ‘Round

  1. Solid advice Matthew, and applicable to most genres of storytelling. For me a good mix is a book with tension – waiting for something to happen – intermixed with conflict – something actually happening. It can give the story a real rhythm – a living pulse. The ebb and flow in the pacing keeps me interested, and not bored or suffering ‘action fatigue’.

  2. I love cliffhanger chapters (provided its not awaiting the next book.) They keep you glued and that inner child keeps saying “Go on, its just one more chapter, you’ll still get x hours sleep….”

    As usually Matthew well thought out and crafted and a joy to read. Thank you.

  3. Very true words. If the reader doesn’t feel pulled through the book then they’re not going to want to read any kind of sequel. Predictability and long drawn out middles are both killers of interest for me, so I try to keep both of those things out my writing. Hopefully! 😉

  4. One book came to mind when you were taking about ‘reading it just to finish it,’ and it was the last Harry Potter book. She could’ve cut out half that book and it would’ve been much better. Not even my kids could make it through to the end without skipping most of the middle stuff.

    And just thinking of that makes me cringe and know that I never want my readers to feel that way. So I will be diligent to bring the tension and the purpose to my chapters!

    Thanks for reminding me!

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