Tuesday Ten: Ways to Increase Story Tension

lel4nd-4I frequently see advice to increase tension, up the stakes, or otherwise make things worse for our characters (poor things), but less often do I see advice on how to do this. Since this has always been a struggle for me, I figured some of you all might wonder, too <grin>. (And if you don’t wonder, don’t tell me—I like to think my foibles are part & parcel of being a writer…)

Here are some strategies I use to increase story tension:

  1. Make more bad stuff happen. Yeah, this is probably a no-brainer, but since it’s also the starting point for all the rest, I didn’t feel right leaving it out. In order to have a story, you need to have conflict; in order to have conflict, your protagonist has to face some sort of challenge—and must surpass numerous obstacles before said challenge is overcome.

    When I say obstacles, I mean bad stuff, and although obstacles shouldn’t be gratuitous (no, your main character doesn’t need to have a hurricane descend out of the blue), there are plenty of believable ways to make things more difficult for your character. And, therefore, more interesting for your reader.Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are some ways to make the bad stuff pack more of a storyline punch:
  2. Impose a time limit. Whatever the bad stuff, it’s worse when it happens more quickly. Just sayin’.
  3. Increase the magnitude of consequence. If your protagonist fails, how bad will it be? Skinned-knee bad might be perfect for a picture book, but when you move into middle grade and young adult fiction, your thoughts need to take a more evil bent. Match the degree to your audience, genre, and the point at which it occurs in the story.
  4. Increase the permanence of consequence. When you’re thinking of ways to make your character’s outlook gloomier, don’t limit yourself to worsening the type of consequence; you can also worsen the duration of the consequence. Abject humiliation is painful when it lasts a week. If it lasts for the next three years of high school, it becomes unendurable.
  5. Increase the implications. Consider how failure will impact your character beyond the immediate. For example, a failed class might embarrass him in the short-term, which is bad. It might also mean that he misses a trip, has to go to summer school, and can’t get the job he really, really hoped to get. That’s worse.
  6. Increase publicity. A failure is bad enough when private; when your family, friends, school, town, or the entire universe knows about it—well, you get the idea.
  7. Bring in someone the protagonist cares about. Failing that class for a boring teacher is bad; failing the class taught by the teacher you adore and want to impress is earth-shattering. Who does your main character really, really, really not want to know about her failure? Would your main character’s situation be worsened by a witness—such as a would-be girlfriend?
  8. Bring in someone the character hates, dislikes, or competes with. Can this failure be worsened by bringing in the character’s nemesis/enemy? Failing that class is even worse if your worst enemy finds out about it and posts copies of your failing test all over the school. Ah, humiliation: such a lovely thing…
  9. Move beyond the personal in failure. Who or what will your protagonist betray by failure? If she breaks a promise, disappoints someone she cares about, or hurts someone else, the consequence, whatever it is, increases exponentially.
  10. Connect the consequence to your character’s ideals. What does failure do to the protagonist’s beliefs about who he is? A lie most hurts the liar who considers himself truthful; cowardice most hurts the character who considers herself brave; and an act of cruelty might stick with the perpetrator longer than with the victim, if he’s one who considers himself honorable.




The hidden price of "productivity" every writer needs to know - www.cherylreif.com

You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]


  1. Sophia Chang says

    This is one of the BEST posts on tension I've EVER read. Exactly like you said – everyone tells us to ratchet up tension without saying HOW and here you've just given applicable methods a la Donald Maass, the master of practical writing advice. Well done.

  2. Pam Asberry says

    Great post, Cheryl. Agents have told me that my WIP is "too quiet," and your suggestions will be very helpful as I work to increase the conflict. Thank you so much!

  3. Cheryl Reif says

    Awww, you guys are sweet! Thank you! I'm so glad this was helpful :). Now I'm off to apply these tips to my own WIP….

  4. Robin Lythgoe says

    Timely words for me as I work away at editing my novel. It really does help to see some examples about how to apply that oft seen advice. Thanks, Cheryl!

  5. Jason Runnels says

    Great post, Thanks! I just joined your blog.

    When I read I want my muscles to literally tense up, it makes the pay off so much more fulfilling as a reader when the MC gets through to the other side. The "how the hell will she get out of this?" to the "whoa, that was awesome". I can't wait to apply some of your tips to some slow spots in my story.

  6. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Robin, glad this was useful! Good luck with that rewrite/edit.

    Jason, I know what you mean–I want my stories to be the kind that keep people up waaaay later than they intended!

  7. PW.Creighton says

    Solid tips Cheryl. I love keeping the poor characters under the hammer… the pressure for surrounding events adds to the overall tension. Sure they're stressed about one thing but the mundane things continually add bits of stress to the overall.

  8. Nadja Notariani says

    I've featured a link back to your blog as well as a link to your post at Wild Writers! You've done a smash-up job with these two posts. I've enjoyed reading. ~ Nadja

  9. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Nadja, thank you!

  10. Michael says

    Yes! The writer's most important job is to make the character's life absolutely miserable. Take everything away and make it almost impossible to get it back. These are all great suggestions. Thanks!

  11. Glen C. Strathy says

    Great advice. I might also add that one more way to add tension is to make the reader care about the main character's success. If the reader feels the main character deserves to win because he or she has suffered, sacrificed, put other people's needs ahead of his own, etc. the reader will be more anxious to see the main character succeed.

  12. Emily Gray Clawson says

    Thanks for such a great post! I'm finding that my current WIP is sagging in the middle because my my MC doesn't have the stakes of failure in mind most of the time. It's great to identify the problem…then it can be fixed!

  13. Katie says

    Great post!

  14. Katie says

    Excellent post! I will star this one.

  15. Carol Riggs says

    I ditto everyone else–this is really good stuff! Thanks, Cheryl!! A great list! ;o)

  16. cweaks says

    Love this. I'm going to keep this checklist beside me as I edit 😉 And this post is SOOO going on The Writer's Resource!

  17. Cheryl Reif says

    Thanks, everyone! Glad to know I can help you all make your characters' lives more complicated (MWAHH HAA HAA!) (Hmm. Not sure I've got the evil laughter thing down…)

  18. Fiona Ingram says

    Tip Number 10 is the best one for me. Great post.

  19. Beverly Diehl says

    These are all great tips. The publicity/public embarrassment could be terrific for a character very concerned about what others think. Which ties in to #10. Thank you!