Tension is the driving force in fiction. It propels the plot and grabs the reader’s interest. Without it, the story is flat and pointless.
So what is tension? Simply put, it’s the distance between characters and their goals. Authors create and manipulate tension through the use of five key elements.
The outer goal is the character’s stated objective: to solve a murder, to win a beauty contest, to defeat the enemy, to discover the family secret. It’s the focus of the plot from start to finish. The outer goal is resolved in the climax.
Suppose that our protagonist, Josie, is a 30-something lawyer hoping to make partner at her firm. The further she seems from achieving that goal—and the closer her rivals seem—the higher the tension.
The inner desire exists alongside the outer goal. It may be consistent with the outer goal, or at odds with it. The character may be aware of the desire, or it may lurk on an unconscious level.
In our example, Josie’s drive to make partner is intensified by her desire to start a family. If she had a baby while still an associate, maternity leave and the demands of an infant would decrease her visibility, and could move partnership out of her reach.
The external conflict comes from the obstacles between the characters and their goals. The source of the conflict may be the environment or other characters.
Josie’s firm has two openings but four candidates. In addition to Josie, there’s Agatha, the leggy blonde with the rich clients and the cozy relationship with the senior partner; Dante, the smooth talker who would sell out his best friend; and Raul, the sweet but clueless family man whom Josie has bailed out more than once to save the firm from embarrassment. Agatha and Dante are formidable rivals. But Raul could prove most dangerous of all, entangling Josie in his mistakes and distracting her from her own cases.
The internal conflict comes from the obstacles that characters create for themselves, either through self-sabotage or an incompatibility between the outer goal and the inner desire.
Josie has been dating Steve for four years. He’s suave, sophisticated, and has connections that help her in her job. The trouble is, she’s not in love with Steve. She stays with him because he’s convenient and useful. They’re compatible inside and outside the bedroom. But he’s not the man she wants to father her children.
Stakes are probably the most important element of tension. The characters must be at risk of losing something of great significance to them if their goals and desires aren’t met. As the protagonist nears the goal, the stakes must increase. This keeps the tension high even as the climax approaches.
Josie’s biological clock is ticking rapidly. Her mother went through menopause at thirty-nine. Josie knows that if she doesn’t find the right man and start a family soon, time may run out for her. As the climax nears, Josie realizes that she’s in love with Zack, her best friend since college. Zack has been offered a promotion out of state. If she doesn’t commit to him now, she may lose him forever. But if she breaks up with Steve, she may lose her biggest client, Steve’s cousin, and blow her chance at partnership. Josie will have to choose between her outer goal and her inner desire.
These five elements of tension are critical to engage the reader and move the plot forward. If you feel your story dragging, look for ways to sharpen these elements and bring the story back to life.