Tag Archives: Dramatic Tension

Dramatic Tension

(Yet another in the series of Twitter threads I’m translating to blog posts! Enjoy.)

So I know I talk a lot about how you need compelling conflict and stakes to have a gripping story. But on a line-by-line and page-by-page level, what keeps me reading is their more nebulous cousin, dramatic tension.

Basically, dramatic tension is what gives you that feeling of OMG I HAVE TO KEEP READING. It’s what keeps you up past your bedtime with a really good book.

But the really wild thing about dramatic tension is that it can come from SO MANY DIFFERENT SOURCES!

The obvious one is I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT! This is an especially great one to use with your chapter breaks—ending a chapter when your character has just been stabbed, or the main character’s dark secret has just been publicly revealed, etc.

But there are lots more, like:

  • I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED IN THE PAST (when you darkly hint at the Tragic Backstory Incident for a while rather than just dumping it up front)
  • I NEED TO KNOW WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON (when Mysterious Events are Afoot and we only have glimpses)
  • 

I KNOW A BAD THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN AND I’M DREADING IT (An inevitable confrontation or crushing revelation; an ambush the readers know about in advance but the characters don’t)
  • I KNOW A GOOD THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN AND I CAN’T WAIT (eagerly watching a romance build)
  • I KNOW A THING WILL HAPPEN BUT NOT HOW (In Hunger Games, the tension isn’t really over whether Katniss will win, but over knowing that for her to win, everyone else must die and she may have to be the one to kill them; you NEED to see how that plays out)
  • I KNOW A THING HAPPENED BUT NOT HOW (every mystery ever)

I could go on, but you get the idea…usually there’s something the reader NEEDS TO KNOW about the story or its characters, but what that thing is can be surprisingly subtle or complex.

Sometimes you can create MORE tension by letting the reader in on a surprise, so they’re anticipating it (either eagerly or with dread), than by just springing it on them out of the blue.

Sometimes withholding information for a little while can create tension through mystery (which can be a great trick in SFF to avoid early info dumps).

Ideally, you want your dramatic tension to operate on multiple levels, with different kinds of tension, short term & long.

One thing I ask myself when I’m editing is “What is keeping the readers turning pages in this scene/chapter? Why don’t they put the book down at the end of it?”

If I don’t have a good answer, I need to up the dramatic tension.


Dramatic Tension Part 1: Layers of Tension

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about dramatic tension. I think manipulating dramatic tension is just as important as plot, character, and voice, but it doesn’t seem to get talked about as often. Yet dramatic tension is often the biggest factor that keeps me reading—it’s what makes a book un-put-down-able. It’s how writers can strive to hook readers from page one and keep them all the way through until The End.

I have a ton to say about dramatic tension, but for this post I’m going to start out talking about using dramatic tension at different levels of granularity. What do I mean by that? Well, for an example of a masterwork of dramatic tension, let’s look at The Hunger Games.

On the grand, overarching level, we’re desperate for the entire book to find out how the games will end. Who will win? Who will live? Will Katniss have to kill anyone she cares about? At this level, we’ve got the key dramatic questions for the whole book. As writers, we need to know what those questions are, make sure they’re sufficiently compelling, introduce them nice and early, and sustain interest in the answers through the whole book (which of course involves throwing in a variety of twists and wrinkles along the way).

But tension also operates at other levels. We have lots of smaller questions we care about just as much in the moment as we do about the big ones. What will Katniss do about Peeta’s big public confession? How the heck is she going to get down out of that tree alive? Will she wind up pitted against Rue? These many layered sources of tension operate on different scales (scene by scene, chapter by chapter, etc) as well as in different areas (physical danger, romantic tension, etc). It’s the intersection of different kinds of tension, playing out in both the short and the long term, that makes it impossible to stop turning pages.

If the only source of tension in the book was the long term question of whether Katniss would live, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting and engaging. It’s the personal implications of the life and death choices she has to make, small and large, moment by moment, that keep us reading. If she only had one big choice at the end, we’d never make it that far. As writers, we need something at stake in every scene—something specific to that scene, not just the overall stakes for the book (though it can certainly tie in to the larger stakes).

At various stages, I like to do a dramatic tension check on a book. I find it’s useful at the outlining stage and again during the revision phase. I try to identify the sources of dramatic tension for the book as a whole, for each major arc/act of the book, and on a chapter-by-chapter level. I ask myself “What is the reason the reader can’t put down the book at this point? What compels them to keep reading, even if they really should go to bed or get some chores done?” If I don’t have a good answer, or if my answer is vague or wishy-washy, or if it’s the same as it’s been for the last 3 chapters, I know I have some work to do.