Five Key Elements for Creating Tension in Fiction

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.

Outer goal

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.

Inner desire

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.

External conflict

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.

Internal conflict

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.

Intuition and the Importance of Being in Your Right Mind

Writers often have good first-hand knowledge of the duality of the human mind. The unconscious is a fertile source of insight and imagination, while the conscious mind wants to enforce structure and rationality on our fevered ramblings—sometimes to the point of editing them out of existence. In writing, as in life, it’s important to find balance.

The unconscious mind is often our first line of defense, grasping incongruities that the conscious mind overlooks. In the book Housekeeping for the Soul, Sandra Carrington-Smith says that the unconscious mind sends its suggestions as “a very light punch in the stomach and the lingering sensation that something is not right, although we can’t quite put our finger on it. If not acknowledged, this subtle feeling can easily be drowned out by our rational mind and the thoughts formulated by the ego.”

One way to approach the unconscious vs. rational mind is to think of them as representing the two hemispheres of the brain. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s remarkable TED talk, she explains that the two hemispheres are completely separate from one another:

  • The right hemisphere focuses on the present moment. Feeling connected to everything around it, it thinks in pictures, creating a collage from the sensory information it perceives.
  • The left hemisphere is linear. It thinks in words, focusing on details, separating things into their component parts. It compares present data to the past, or uses the data to project the future.

The left brain wants things to be logical. It doesn’t always trust the thought-pictures that the right brain sends. It can’t convert them into words, so it can’t categorize them. Those thought-pictures then settle as a feeling in our gut, a feeling that it’s easy to rationalize away.

But there’s nothing mystical about the perceptions of the right brain. They’re as true and meaningful as left-brain perceptions. When we suppress or misuse right-brain data, we can create all sorts of trouble for ourselves.

In fiction, flashes of insight offer an opportunity to foreshadow events or create suspense. When used skillfully, intuition can be the hunch that helps the detective solve the crime, or the bad feeling that prompts a mother to lead her child out of danger. When ignored, intuition can be the signal that the college student is making a terrible mistake leaving the nightclub with a man she just met. When overused—without the counterbalancing effect of the more analytical conscious mind—intuition could lead the rich widower to fall for the sweet young thang whom he “just knows” loves him and not his money.

Unless you’re writing speculative fiction, it’s your job to offer a rational explanation for the gut instincts of your characters. Drop hints that create the same sense of unease in the reader that the character feels. That way, whether the character’s intuition leads in the right direction or leads astray, the reader won’t feel manipulated. The story will just feel right.

There Is No Muse: Where Writers Really Get Their Ideas

Creative writers dread the question, “Where did you get your idea?” I was asked this question recently and answered it as honestly as I could. But in fact, I’m not sure the question has an answer. Ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. They come from our imagination, from the whispers of forgotten memories, from our own experiences, from our friends’ experiences, from books and songs and movies. Writers draw their stories from the amalgam of their lives.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve told myself stories. Author J.D. Rhoades says it’s like having a movie playing continuously on the inside of your forehead. I can’t understand having a brain that doesn’t work that way. So I don’t quite understand what people want to know when they ask where I get my ideas. I’m torn between giving a simple, concrete answer or a more theoretical one that reveals the artistic process.

In the mind of a creative writer, ideas are like a throng of brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange screaming for attention. Novelists don’t write because they get ideas—they write because they need to get rid of ideas. They write because an idea is burning a hole in their skull, and it won’t stop until they let it out. And if you’ve never had that experience, then my telling you in a simple, concrete way where I got my idea won’t get you any closer to understanding where stories come from.

But do people who ask that question really want to know where stories come from? I don’t think so. I think they want a simple answer so they can nod and think they understand a process so mysterious that no one can ever understand it. They want an answer that gives the illusion that the artistic process is linear and predictable, when in fact it’s dark and chaotic.

This concept that a Muse from on high touches you with her magic, and suddenly an idea bursts forth, is a fallacy. The imaginations of creative writers are constantly churning. At some point, we grab an idea from that fermenting brew and channel our energy into making a full-blown story or novel out of it. One thought builds on another until a world is born. And I think that’s true regardless of the author’s preference for sensing or intuition. Sensing types may be more drawn to stories that come from something concrete—like a saga from their family’s history—while intuitive types might prefer more imaginative stories like fantasy or science fiction. But I don’t think either type suffers from a shortage of ideas. We suffer from a plenitude of them.

Related posts:
Incubating Your Fiction Ideas
Writing and Creativity: Going Outward to Go Inward

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: Leveraging Personality Type for Effective Communication

The Myers-Briggs theory teaches that we each have preferred ways of communicating. But our preferences may not be the best way of making the message clear to the audience. When writing, we have the luxury of editing what we wrote. Not so in speech. Either way, misunderstanding can ensue when we don’t adequately consider the needs of our audience.

Sensing vs. Intuition

Often, preference isn’t about what we do, but the order in which we do it. For instance, when I’m writing a scene for a novel, I start with the dialogue. Once that’s in place, I’ll add gestures, facial expressions, and movement. Setting and sensory detail come last, because sensing is my inferior function. That part of the scene doesn’t have meaning for me until the rest of the scene is in place.

But the setting elements of the scene must come first for the reader. Readers can’t immerse themselves in the scene until they know when and where it’s taking place, and which characters are there. Is the environment light or dark, quiet or noisy? Are the characters happy, angry, or frightened?

So, too, in spoken communication, Continue reading “There Must Be Some Misunderstanding: Leveraging Personality Type for Effective Communication”

Editor Gone Wild: Defining “Good Enough”

frustrated editorIn the field of technical communication, “good enough” documentation is becoming the norm. For me as an INFJ writer, this is a difficult concept to master. I want documentation to be as good as it can be. As an NF, I’m passionate about effective communication. As a judging type, I want to see style rules applied consistently. So when you tell me that my task as an editor is to make the document “good enough,” I go into stress mode. For an INFJ, this means the inferior sensing function surfaces. I may avoid the task by indulging in an activity that engages the senses, like getting a snack or playing Scramble on my iPod. If I try to edit, I may become obsessed with mundane details. Every sentence sounds wrong.

It used to be that working as an editor meant proofreading and ensuring consistency. It meant helping writers to better organize the material and to identify sentences that could be better written. Those things seem like a luxury now. Two technological developments have changed the role of the editor, perhaps forever:

Continue reading “Editor Gone Wild: Defining “Good Enough””

Incubating Your Fiction Ideas

Do introverted writers have an advantage over extraverts when it comes to developing story ideas?

In her classic book Becoming a Writer, author Dorothea Brande admonishes writers against discussing their story ideas with others:

Your unconscious self … will not care whether the words you use are written down or talked to the world at large. If you are for the moment fortunate enough to have a responsive audience you often suffer for it later. You will have created your story and … will find yourself disinclined to go on with the laborious process of writing that story at full length; unconsciously, you will consider it as already done.

Most introverts should have little trouble following this advice. During early drafts, they like to work in isolation. But extraverts prefer to develop their ideas through talking about them with others. So how can extraverts follow their preference without killing their passion for the story?


Neuroimaging studies suggest that introverts are more likely than extraverts to engage in self-talk. When developing a story, try talking to yourself, whether out loud or inside your head. Take notes of the conversation you have with yourself. Get your ideas on paper—don’t let them vanish into the ether.
Continue reading “Incubating Your Fiction Ideas”

What does your writing say about you?

magnifying glassI got a hit on my blog based on the search, “Do you think it is appropriate for people to be judged based on their writing?” It’s a great question from a philosophical standpoint. But it may be an even better question from a technical perspective. What does your writing say about you?

Magazines make it seem so simple. Tell them your favorite dessert or 90s rock band, and they’ll tell you what sort of person you are. Maybe there will be some science behind it. Maybe the descriptions will be just general enough to have a sliver of truth that applies to everyone. But writing is more complex and personal. It should be a better indicator of personality, right?

The short answer is, probably not. Students and beginning writers don’t have the skills to control their message. Their work lacks subtlety and nuance. As a result, their expressions may sound much stronger on the page than they intend—stronger, in fact, than the writer feels. Newbies also have little understanding of audience reaction, so their prose can elicit a negative response that they never expected. And by definition, they’re still learning grammar, usage, style, and form. Mistakes are natural, and not a good indicator of potential.

Intermediate writers have a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses. They understand audience reaction, but they haven’t yet mastered all the skills needed to create the desired effect. They may overcompensate—for instance, by adding too much sensory detail because they naturally tend toward the abstract. And in areas where they excel, their writing is polished to suit the purpose of their prose. It may sound natural, but chances are, they crafted it to sound that way.

Experienced writers may adopt a persona in their writing. They may appear to reveal private details about themselves or their mindset, when in fact they’re using practiced techniques to create an impression or to manipulate audience reaction. They may play devil’s advocate. They may use irony or satire. They may express an opinion that’s the opposite of their own because someone’s paying them to do it. (After all, writers have to eat.) They may be writing according to the requirements of a particular genre that doesn’t allow them to reveal their true self. Or maybe they’re private people who don’t want to reveal their true self.

Writing is controlled communication. It’s impossible to tell which elements of a written work express the writer’s personality; which are the product of craft; and which are artifacts of the writing process. To judge someone based on their writing is misguided at best. The purpose of writing isn’t self-revelation. The purpose is to transfer knowledge from the writer to the reader. And in that space between writer and reader are truths and falsehoods that neither could have imagined on their own.

Energy to Write: Extraversion vs. Introversion

cafeIn my last three posts, I examined how the Judging/Perceiving, Thinking/Feeling, and Sensing/Intuition dimensions of personality affect our mental energy when we approach a writing project. In this post, I look at the Extraversion/Introversion dimension. This scale measures whether we’re oriented inwardly or outwardly. In a writing project, it affects the environment we prefer to write in.

Extraverts gain energy from the outside world of people, objects, and events. They develop their ideas by talking with others. Extraverts tend to enjoy active and even noisy environments. They prefer to jump into the writing project and experiment with different approaches. They might use a conversational style during their first draft, which they may need to modify as appropriate for the subject matter. During revision, they require a quiet environment so they can focus on the task without distraction.

Introverts gain energy from the internal world of thoughts, concepts, and reactions. They prefer to begin a project by contemplating their ideas in a quiet environment. While conducting research, they may pause often to consider how the material relates to their project. They will likely jot down ideas and construct a rough outline in their head before they begin the first draft. Introverts are generally able to concentrate deeply and block out distractions. However, they don’t like interruptions when they’re lost in thought, so they work best in an isolated spot. During revision, introverts should seek feedback from a peer to ensure that what’s on paper (or the computer screen) accurately reflects what’s in their head.

Image courtesy of trublueboy.


The Art of Dialogue by Carolyn Zeisset
Writing and Personality by John K. DiTiberio and George H. Jensen

Related posts:

Energy to Write: Judgment vs. Perception
Energy to Write: Thinking vs. Feeling
Energy to Write: Sensing vs. Intuition

Energy to Write: Sensing vs. Intuition

jigsaw puzzle autumn treeIn my last two posts, I examined how the Judging/Perceiving and Thinking/Feeling dimensions of personality affect our mental energy when we approach a writing project. In this post, I look at the Sensation/Intuition dimension. This scale measures how we gather information. In a writing project, it affects what content we prefer to present.

Sensing types are motivated to write by a desire to report information that serves a practical purpose. They want a specific writing goal and a clear path to achieving it. They follow approaches that have worked well in the past, building on existing knowledge. They tend to move in a linear way from start to finish. They try to present details accurately and focus on the practical aspects of the topic. They’re straightforward and action-oriented. During revision, sensing types should ensure that they’ve provided context and a unifying theme to tie the details together.

Intuitive types are motivated to write by a desire to express new insights. They want a general idea of the project goals so they can plan their own approach. They try to bring a unique angle to each project. They tend to jump around as they write, letting one idea suggest another. They’re more interested in how the facts interrelate than they are in the facts themselves. They enjoy complexity and abstract theories. During revision, intuitive types should ensure that they give enough specific details to ground their work in reality.

In an upcoming post, I’ll explore how the Extraversion/Introversion dimension of personality affects our energy to write.

Image courtesy of chadou99.


The Art of Dialogue by Carolyn Zeisset
Writing and Personality by John K. DiTiberio and George H. Jensen

Related posts:

Energy to Write: Extraversion vs. Introversion 
Energy to Write: Judgment vs. Perception
Energy to Write: Thinking vs. Feeling

Energy to Write: Thinking vs. Feeling

contemplative loversIn a previous post, I examined how the Judging/Perceiving dimension of personality affects our mental energy when we approach a writing project. In this post, I look at the Thinking/Feeling dimension. This scale measures the criteria we use to make decisions. In a writing project, it affects how we prefer to present the content.

Thinking types are motivated by a desire for clarity. They excel at relating factual information. They take the role of dispassionate observer and make their points through a logical unfolding of ideas. Thinking types focus on content and organization. With a systematic approach, they use critical analysis to dispel misconceptions and present new material. During revision, thinking types should ensure that they provide enough background material and explain why the subject is relevant to the reader.

Feeling types are motivated by a desire to connect with others. They excel at using writing to forge relationships. Feeling types look for a way to personally invest themselves in their subject. They include anecdotes to illustrate their points. They focus on expression and a sense of flow. With audience needs foremost in their mind, feeling types soften their arguments to create a sense of unity. During revision, feeling types should ensure accuracy and add facts to support their perspective.


The Art of Dialogue by Carolyn Zeisset
Writing and Personality by John K. DiTiberio and George H. Jensen

Related posts:

Energy to Write: Extraversion vs. Introversion 
Energy to Write: Judgment vs. Perception
Energy to Write: Sensing vs. Intuition