Saturday, May 30, 2015

Novelists: Creating Tension Wherever We Go

Next month, June, is "conflict month" at Writers on the Storm, but around my house, every month is conflict month. With three teenagers, a hard-working husband, a creative (a.k.a. crazy) wife, an eager dog, and a cat that disdains us all, can you imagine why? Yes, I have a lot of experience with conflicts of every sort. The big conflicts make our lives interesting—though I do prefer when they stay in my stories, thank you very much.

But today, I don’t want to talk about the big stuff. This conflict is so much smaller, I’m going to assign it a different name entirely: tension.

Tension: inner unrest, striving, or imbalance :  a feeling of psychological stress often manifested by increased muscular tonus and by other physiological indicators of emotion.*
“Increased muscular tonus.” Ever felt like clenching? Yeah, that’s tension.

Yes, the words conflict and tension can be used interchangeably, but I’m differentiating between them, because you can’t have major conflicts on every page. Imagine having a character barge into every scene demanding to know who stole his phone charger. It would get (Though if you wrote a teenager into your story, you could make it work.) So maybe you don’t want conflict on every page, but you do want tension on every page.

Donald Maass calls it micro-tension, and he says in Fire in Fiction, “Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds.” (By the way, if you haven’t read Fire in Fiction and Maass’s other craft books, get started immediately.)

We’re not talking about those big story questions—will Rafe finally tell Aubrey he loves her? We’re talking about the little things. Imagine your last Thanksgiving dinner. I hope you didn’t have any outright conflicts at the table, but often, there can be tension. There was for poor, fictional Aubrey.

Aunt Mabel leveled a look at her. “No date...again, dear?”
Aubrey forced a smile and thought about the fight she’d had with Rafe the night before. If only she’d kept her stupid mouth shut. “Not this year.”
“What about that hottie, Rafe?” Aubrey’s little sister said. “He seemed totally into you.”
Her father reached for the mashed potatoes. “Rafe? What kind of name is that?” He heaped another helping on his plate. “Sounds like a pirate.”
Aubrey’s brother settled his gaze on her. “You’re not stupid enough to get wrapped up with a guy like Rafe, right, sis?” 

They’re not fighting, but Aubrey’s definitely feeling increased muscular tonus. And if the author’s done her job, the reader is, too, wondering how Aubrey’s going to get the guy and still keep her family happy.

That’s tension, and as I just showed—I hope—it’s not that hard to slip into dialog. I’m sure you do it all the time in your books. Be careful, though. Dialog doesn’t automatically add tension. Whenever you have two people on the same side with the same goals, you’re missing an opportunity for tension. Look for those happy people/happy land, let’s sip coffee and eat cookies kind of scenes and find ways to add some tension.

But how do you add tension to description? There are a number of ways. One is to use your character’s fears and emotions in that moment as a filter. It’s a windy, autumn day, and your character has just learned she has a rare and often fatal disease. Let’s not have the leaves dancing in the autumn breeze. Rather, let’s see them hanging onto the branches, clinging to life while the already fallen crunch beneath her feet, releasing the scent of decay and death as she plods her way toward the hospital.

What about action scenes? They’re tense enough all by themselves, right? Not necessarily. Ever notice how nearly every cop show on TV has at least one chase scene. The cop/detective/federal agent stops at least 25 feet from the bad guy and yells, “Stop, police,” and invariably the perp makes a run for it. This is a great time to refill your iced tea, because there’s no tension. Let’s face it: everybody knows they’re going to catch him. Check your action scenes and make sure they’re dripping with tension.

And then there’s exposition, those paragraphs with your character just...thinking. Unless you’re intentional about adding tension here, your readers’ eyes will glaze over. One way to add tension is to fill your character’s head with conflicting thoughts. She loves him. She hates him. She can’t live without him. She’s going to leave him. Only try to make it a bit more subtle than that. And if you’re rehashing what just happened in a previous scene...don’t. Not unless you’re adding something new—and critical—that the reader doesn’t already know.

Make it your goal to have tension on every single page of your manuscript. That’s what keeps the reader up at night, turning those pages.

If you’d like to learn more about tension, ACFW is offering an online course in July on this subject—taught by yours truly. I’d love to see you there.

Your turn: What’s your favorite technique for adding tension to your novel?

* from Merriam-Webster Unabridged,

About the Author:

Robin Patchen lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, with her husband and three teenagers. Her third book, Finding Amanda, is available now. When Robin isn’t writing or caring for her family, she works as a freelance editor at Robin’s Red Pen, where she specializes in Christian fiction. Read excerpts and find out more at her website,

Finding Amanda links:

My website:
Robin’s Red Pen:
Amazon:  Finding Amanda

Finding Amanda Back Cover Copy

Chef and popular blogger Amanda Johnson hopes publishing her memoir will provide healing and justice. Her estranged husband, contractor and veteran soldier Mark Johnson, tries to talk her out of it, fearing the psychiatrist who seduced her when she was a teen might return to silence her.

But Amanda doesn’t need advice, certainly not from her judgmental soon-to-be ex-husband. Her overconfidence makes her vulnerable when she travels out of town and runs into the abuser from her past. A kind stranger comes to her rescue and offers her protection.

Now Mark must safeguard his wife both from the fiend who threatens her life and from the stranger who threatens their marriage.


Don't forget our "Write-Out" Day! We're having a field trip to the National Museum of Funeral History, 415 Barren Springs Dr., Houston. We'll meet at 10:00 and have lunch together at Rudy's after the tour. Entry fee is $10.00--unless we can swing 25 attendees, then we can qualify for the group rate of $8.00. Bring pen and paper. You never know what'll inspire you!

Also, the Storming the Storm short story contest officially opens June 1st. Get your stories polished. This year's theme is "Dance." Information here: 

Next meeting is June 20th, when Janice Thompson teaches us about C.O.N.F.L.I.C.T. Writers in the Houston area are welcome guests!


  1. Thanks for hosting me on your blog today. I wish I could join you for the meeting on conflict. I bet that'll be great!

  2. Great post. I'm looking forward to your class next month. Right now I'm using setting to add tension. Or at least I hope I am, I'm trying. 😊