Creating Tension in Your Fiction

Anyone who’s taken a class in creative writing has probably heard the term “rising action.” Essentially it’s a series of events related to the main plot that increases the tension or suspense of a story until the climax and resolution. It’s one of the aspects of good fiction that draws readers in and keeps them engaged. It fills readers’ psychological need for increased complexity and meaning.

I believe, however, that many emerging writers misinterpret that idea to mean that a story should begin with low tension in order to allow it to go higher as the narrative develops. The evidence surfaces often in the submission queue, in stories that begin with characters going through the mundane activities of a normal day for several pages.

Maybe the writers think that such an opening provides an insight into character. But it just doesn’t compare to placing sympathetic characters in situations of tension. Meeting characters (or people) when they are in their comfort zones tells us little about them. What readers want is to know the character deep inside, and that only reveals itself when the character faces risk.

Consider what Kurt Vonnegut said about that: “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”[1] The guideline I like to use is, have your characters take the chances that your readers would never dare.

Maybe those stories become more tense as the story goes on, but after a few pages of characters staring into mirrors or the writer describing the weather[2], I don’t care enough to find out.

The same is true for stories that deliberately withhold pertinent information about what’s happening, instead offering vague hints of the action to come. To me, these are a form of tease, like saying to the reader, “If you’ll just read a few more pages, things are going to pick up.” But readers, especially lit journal editors, aren’t going to wait. There’s too much other stuff out there to read, so if your story doesn’t engage on page one they are going to move on.

Here’s what George Saunders said in his new book on writing, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: “If you know where a story is going, don’t hoard it. Make the story go there, now. But then what? What will you do next? You surrendered your big reveal. Exactly. Often, in our doubt that we have a real story to tell, we hold something back, fearing that we don’t have anything else. And this can be a form of trickery. Surrendering that thing is a leap of faith that forces the story to attention, saying to it, in effect, “You have to do better than that, and now that I’ve denied you your trick, your first-order solution, I know that you will.”

Sometimes I think the core problem is that the writer doesn’t believe he can do better. He has an idea that he thinks is interesting, but believes tension is created by being vague and secretive. But it isn’t. Think about the last good whodunnit you watched. When the detective revealed the killer, didn’t you think, “All the clues were there and I’m still surprised!” It’s the same for every kind of fiction. No matter what you’re writing, share the information that leads to the eventual outcome with your readers. Challenge them to engage and figure things out. It’s much more satisfying to readers when they come to their own conclusions.

Not doing so is an issue of the writer trying to control the story too much[3], which means manipulating the reader. But readers don’t want to be manipulated, they want to discover, as in discover what happens along with the characters as the tension rises, and discover for themselves what the story means. That, in turn, means the writer must be committed to discovery as well. This may result in altering the path to your climax and resolution, or even changing the ending completely. As a writer you have to have confidence that you can do that, because your story is about the characters and not about you.

For your story to engage with rising action and tension, you must provide tension from the outset. Place your characters in situations that demand difficult decisions. Put them on the spot. Make it matter. Let us see what they’re made of, and you will never lack for tension.

Image by José Gracia from Pixabay

[1] From “Eight Rules for Writing a Short Story”:

[2] Which is why Elmore Leonard said, “Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long.”

[3] For an advanced look at that topic, read this article on Samuel Beckett: