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Friday, June 14, 2013

Easy Ways to Increase Tension

Almost every Friday night, I get together with my brother, his wife, and other close friends. It’s my one time a week that I let myself take a break from one responsibility or another. For this Friday, we had a bit of a miscommunication somewhere along the line, and half of us thought we were getting together while the other half, who hosts at their place, thought we were not. All this got me thinking of the simplest things in life that we can use to complicate plots and increase tension in a story. So here’s a quick list. Feel free to add to it in the comments section.

Miscommunication: This one is simple to employ because we’re all familiar with it and there are so many ways to make it happen. All it takes is for one character to intend one things and the other to interpret it differently. Miscommunication can come from an interruption in a conversation at a critical point, interference in communication, differing life perspectives, or naturally, the telephone effect of going through multiple people to pass a message.

Lack of Communication: This is another that happens a lot in real life. Either people get busy or hurts and misunderstandings fester that discourage communication. With this one, as time goes on, things tend to build, and the parties involved tend to make assumptions, often incorrectly, about how the other person feels or thinks. In real life, this sort of thing tends to get worse and worse until relationships fall apart. In fiction, a writer can use lack of communication to build tension to an often explosive showdown that often forms a turning point in the story.

Differing Goals and Intentions: This one is easy to spot, especially in couples. Imagine a husband and wife who go shopping. The wife may envision an expedition involving multiple stores and imagine the outfits she hopes to purchase, perhaps just the right thing for a party or interview. The husband, alternatively, intends to go to exactly what they need, get it, and get out as quickly as possible. Browsing comes off as drifting off the course of their intentions. And naturally, arguments and hurt feelings easily erupt from this situation.

So put this into a story in an situation or with any characters. All it takes is that two or more characters approach the same thing with different goals or intentions. Because people tend to assume that others are like them, they tend to miss the fact that both of them came at something from different angles and that’s the reason for tension.

Taking Things Personally: We don’t like to admit that we do this, but everyone does at least some of the time. How do you do it with characters? It only takes having a character interpret others’ behavior as relating directly to them, even if there’s no connection whatsoever. All it takes is an innocent phrase that loosely relates, in the listener’s mind, to something they’re sensitive about.

Disappoints and Bad Luck: Sometimes, it just feels like life or the world is against us. All it takes is a traffic jam that makes a character miss something important, someone getting picked over the hero, or any other random act that disrupts the character’s intentions. This actually works best if there is a great purpose to such things in the story. Even if it doesn’t link to the main plot, it helps if the bad luck has symbolism.

What other simple real life things can help increase tension in a story?


  1. Love these points. I think you've hit all the big ones. Sometimes I get frustrated with miscommunication or lack of communication as tension, but it seems to be a staple in romance. Personally I think different goals or past hurts that make characters cagey work better.

  2. Great list! I'd also add timing, which can feed into the other points you made. Sometimes the right words or actions at the wrong time can make things worse.