Adding Tension to Every Scene

In her book Writing a Killer Thriller, Jodie Renner says every scene should have tension/conflict. To prove her point, she quotes a bunch of famous people:

“In fiction, the best times for the writer–and the reader–are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies.” –Jack M. Bickham.
“Conflict is the magnet that draws reader interest, the discomfort that demands our attention.”  –Donald Maass
“Drama is life with the dull parts left out.”  –Alfred Hitchcock
Renner says, “Every single scene in your novel should have conflict of some kind, whether it’s actual arguing and fighting, or just dialogue with an undercurrent of inner doubt, disbelief, resentment, indecision, turmoil, or angst. If a scene has no conflict, either rewrite it or delete it.” But she doesn’t leave us there. She has some tips for adding tension.
1. “Start with an inciting incident and bridging conflict.” If the opening paragraph has meaningful and intriguing conflict (but not necessarily the main conflict of the story), your reader will stick around long enough to find the main conflict. The protagonist has to be relatable, or likable, or otherwise sympathetic for this to work, but I’ve gotten ahead of myself because this is the next point.
2. Offer a protagonist the reader will worry about. If the reader doesn’t care about the hero, he/she won’t get sucked into the story the way they need to and might not stick around for the good stuff you’ve got planned for chapter 3. Your hero must be fabulous: “Likable, charismatic, resourceful, smart, strong–but vulnerable and conflicted.” A hero the reader will cheer for and worry about.
3. Include a worthy antagonist the reader can hate. He (or she) needs to be “multidimensional, clever, determined, and nasty enough that he’s worthy of your hero.” In many ways, the antagonist needs to be stronger than the protagonist so when the final confrontation appears, there’s doubt about who’s going to win. 
4. “Write in close third-person POV.” This helps the reader feel emotionally engaged with the hero because they see through her eyes.
5. “Create real conflict, not just accidents or coincidences.” A car accident is exciting, but it’s impersonal. One car accident is believable. Six isn’t. So stack some real opposition against your hero that’s deliberate and planned, not some freak accident or random bad luck. When the hero has a chance to fight back, he grows and develops.
6. “Create complex problems with escalating conflict.” If your hero has a hangnail, the reader doesn’t worry. But give your reader a real challenge, and the reader will be hooked. Raise the stakes, make things harder for the hero, show him struggling and learning and striving and never giving up. Don’t offer an easy answer, or you’ll frustrate the reader. Make it appear as if there’s no way out. As you toss out conflicts for the hero, make them grow in complexity. If you start with the hardest one first, you’ll lose the reader.
7. “Create subtle or overt tension, resentments, or competition even among friends, family members, co-workers, or allies.” Don’t rely solely on the villain to thwart your hero. Family, friends, neighbors, and casual acquaintances can also cause discord, jealousy, angst, resentment, competition, and frustration.
8. Include tension in dialogue. When you have two people with opposing agendas, you’ve got the makings of great tension. As James N. Frey said, “Decide you will have fresh, snappy dialogue and not a single line of conversation.”
9. “Throw in some pressures and time constraints.” I love the ticking bomb scenario, where there’s a deadline that looks unbeatable. 
10. “Vary the level of tension–write in highs and lows.” If you’ve got constant edge-of-the-seat tension, the reader will get exhausted. So vary the pace. Even low-action scenes can show the hero’s inner tension, his worry, fear, confusion, frustration. As James Scott Bell said, “Give your readers some breathing room… but when they breathe, let it be with a tight chest.”
Open your current work-in-progress and choose a scene you think is boring. Now use one (or more) of these tips to add tension to the scene. Share your success in the comments section–nothing makes it easier to delve into work when you read of someone else’s success!

3 thoughts on “Adding Tension to Every Scene

  1. I just finished rewriting most of a chapter in order to chop out the less tense stuff. I’d already edited it twice without much results, so I finally gave up, opened a new window, and pretty much rewrote the entire thing (save two pages at the beginning which were already okay). It’s tiring work, but worth it.

  2. Pingback: 5 endings that ruined the main character’s life~by Starshelle | The Write Stuff

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