here are as many ways of writing the same thing as there are people to try. But what makes one piece of writing more compelling than another? Why is it that the same story told by one person can be captivating yet told by another it can be boring? There are, of course, many different ingredients, but one that is very important is known as tension. So what is it and how do I add it to my story?

My Definition

There is a distinct difference between suspense, mystery and tension. Suspense is where you are sure somthing is going to happen, you are fairly sure you know what it is, but you don’t know when it will happen, though it will be soon. In a novel, this would be like when the threads of a story are heading toward one another and you know that two characters will cross paths, but you aren’t sure and you are waiting for the confirmation. Mystery is where you don’t know something. That thing you don’t know is important and it seems strange or out of place, until all the clues are in. Often a story with mytery in it will revolve around the gathering of those clues. As a reader you’ll be trying to guess what the answer is. Finally, tension is when you know something has happened and you are eagre to find out how it could possibly resolve.

An Example:

Suspense: A man enters his home and sits on the sofa. He picks up his remote control and is about to turn the TV on. As the reader, we know there have been a string of TV remote controlled bombs killing people in their home. Just before he turns the TV on, the phone rings. It is a salesperson trying to sell something. He hangs up and picks up the remote again to turn the TV on. The cat jumps on his lap so he puts the remote down and goes to feed the cat. As the reader, we don’t know if there is a bomb in the TV or not and we don’t know if the remote will detonate it, but we keep waiting for it to happen.
Mystery: A man enters his home and notices muddy foot prints in the hall. He goes into his living room to switch on the TV and has to straighten the vase next to the TV because it has been moved. When he sits down, he crunches some paper hidden under the cushions. He pulls the paper out and finds it is instructions on how to dismantle a TV. And so it goes. Clues build to point toward something. The reader is left guessing as to exactly what, but the clues are there to piece it together.
Tension: A man plants a bomb in the TV and wires it to explode when the remote is used. He leaves just as the owner of the house arrives. The owner takes the remote and presses the on switch. As he is doing it he sees the bomb and knows that it will go off if he releases the button on the remote. He has to somehow defuse the bomb while keeping the remote pointed at the TV and the button pressed. If he runs, it will explode and kill his dear pet rabbit. He begins dismantling the TV, sweat making his fingers slipery. He looks around for something to hold the button down for him, he can’t find anything.

As you can see there is a subtle difference between each one but it is important. When constructing your story, it is not the bomb in the TV that compels the reader, but the struggle the man has in disarming it. In a novel, feel free to introduce your primary problem up front, put the main character(s) in hot water with high stakes and as they take one step forward, turn it into a step sideways and sometimes a step backward. Knowing what the danger is, knowing they have to evade it and then the struggle to overcome is what drives a reader forward.


About sjohnhughes

Author, nerd, father, runner and more View all posts by sjohnhughes

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