I’m going to go ahead and say that this is my absolute favorite thing to discuss about good writing. In fact, I’m going to assert that 76% of the time a book is described as “bad”, it’s because of tension issues.1
The actual word “tension” comes from the Latin word tensio(n- ), and from the French word tendere, meaning “stretch.” I normally shudder when I see someone starting a paper with a definition, but here is my exception, because it’s just so COOL. When we experience good tension, we feel it physically—our throats tighten, our stomachs clench, we feel the muscles and ligaments in our joints stiffen and “stretch” taut—all from words on a page. It’s a visceral response, and here’s the best part—when we experience tension, we’re not responding to what an author is saying. We’re responding to what isn’t being said.
That’s right—tension comes from deliberate space. It’s the shadows, the negative space, the darkness. We’re scared of the night when we’re little because of what we can’t see. And tension in writing is the same. When we read, we physically tense up because we can sense that there is something being left unsaid.
Now, we’re talking about romance here, right? Not murder mysteries. But guess what, same principal applies to sexual tension. We physically respond to what COULD happen between the characters we’ve become emotionally invested in, and the author executes that the exact same way—by creating tension through what isn’t said.
Here’s why I think analyzing tension is so cool: good writing adds tension in a lot of sneaky ways.
First off, let’s discuss the obvious. Crafty information gaps in the plot. This one will smack you right in the face if it’s done poorly. The reader doesn’t want to be told exactly what’s going to happen and why in a straightforward and no nonsense way. We love nonsense. We LIVE for nonsense. The hero has a dark and sordid past? Leave me little clues and make me guess. The heroine is secretly in love with her brother’s best friend and it can never ever happen? You better let me see some serious pining, but don’t you dare just spill those beans.
But here’s the thing–it’s harder than it looks. An author can’t withhold too much of the plot and just dump it all at once, or the reader will feel duped. It’s a mutual relationship the author and the reader have, and the reader wants to be involved in the unfolding. An author also can’t drop too many hints, or the reader will feel bored and unsatisfied. They can’t just throw in some sneaky plot twists and call it good. Essentially–tension is a lot harder to execute than it might look.
Here are some cool things to look for when you’re reading:
What ISN’T being said? Whose motives are unclear? What’s stopping the resolution from happening? This should be pretty obvious to the reader. I find that the reviewers that I know catch this one CONSTANTLY. When you’re reading a lot of niche books, it gets pretty easy to see what’s being purposefully omitted. And that’s okay–it’s still really fun to see how carefully authors focus on this very important factor.
Here’s a great example: in Bitterburn by Ann Aguirre, we have a classic retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In the movie, Belle sees the Beast right away. Why? I really can’t be sure, but I think that because the movie is for a younger audience, taking away that secret reduces some of the tension and allows for kids to relax—they know what the Beast looks like and how it happened, so there’s no looming secret waiting to be uncovered. So in Bitterburn, what does the author do? Drag that unveiling out, creating a steady increase in tension, so that the reader isn’t just uncovering the secrets of the keep—we’re also sitting there watching the main character develop increasingly complicated feelings for someone she hasn’t even seen, and whose reputation has been established as terrifying.
“May I join you?” I call out.
He doesn’t respond at first. Perhaps he’s hoping I’ll go away?
I don’t move from the writing desk. If he prefers not to respond because a rejection might hurt my feelings, I will go on my own. Still, the quiet does sting, even if it’s not as painful as a rebuff.
As I rise, he says, “I want your company but I don’t want you to see me. Not yet.”
“I could close my eyes,” I offer.
Mostly, It’s a joke, because what in the world can I do with my eyes shut? His slow response says he’s considering it. “Will you trust me?” he asks finally.
In this section, we see the Beast (Njal) opening up, but slowly. The reader has no idea when the Beast will be revealed or what will happen once they’re face to face. The author is essentially creating intentional physical space between the characters while emotional intimacy is well underway. Tense. Plus—keep in mind that this interaction occurs maybe a quarter of the way through the book. Spacing is also all about where in the book these moments happen. If the characters in Bitterburn didn’t see one another until 80% of the way through the book, it wouldn’t give them enough time to work through their other issues, and that would make their peak moment very underwhelming. So space is very much about what should be uncovered AND when.
Essentially, the balance between information and experience for the reader. This is less obvious, because I’m not talking about space, or big picture information here–I’m talking about how much contextual information is being provided about the scene you’re reading RIGHT NOW. Where the characters are, what the weather is like, what the air smells like, etc. If the author is providing a lot of contextual information, it slows down the reader. It forces the reader to pause, to expand the imaginative space, and to be where the author wants you to be. So more contextual information can relieve or reduce tension. In romance and in thrillers, you might see a very fast-paced and high-stress chapter followed immediately by a scene that suddenly feels almost pastoral–you go from a very close-up, zoomed-in perspective to something broader and more open. We cut from the gripping action to somewhere totally calm. When we read books that have high tension balanced by lower tension, it keeps the reader engaged and propels the plot forward.
One really immediate example of this is in Glitterland by Alexis Hall. Ash, who is the narrator of this story, is clinically depressed and in the grip of repeating cycles of mental health crises. The story opens with Ash waking up and realizing that he’s had a one-night stand and immediately begins to have a panic attack. Even though we discover that he willingly engaged in the wild pleasures the night before, the scene from the next morning unfolds with skipping awareness—he’s simultaneously becoming aware of his current environment while he’s also becoming aware of this mental state.
My heart is beating so fast it’s going to trip over itself and stop. Everything is hot and dark. I’ve been buried alive. I’m already dead.
I have just enough grip on reality to discard these nothings, but it doesn’t quell my horror. My mouth is dry, strange and sour, my tongue thick as carpet. Alcohol- heavy breath drags itself out of my throat, the scent of it churning my stomach. I’m pickled in sweat. And there’s an arm across my chest, a leg across my legs. I am manacled in flesh.
What this does is provide instantaneous tension—you’re getting glimpses of the scene, but only brief ones, while you’re going through the physical feelings of an oncoming panic attack. The information you are given is minimal and physical. The absence of the setting makes the reader focus on what the character is feeling, and only that. The tension starts at a peak. But the next chapter jumps back in time to the night before, and the information is fluid and easy–so the tension immediately eases.
It was Max’s stag night, and I’d failed to get out of it. I’d had a lot of practice in letting my friends down, but unfortunately Niall knew all my stratagems.
My usual technique involved accepting invitations with a convincing display of pleasure and gratitude, then demonstrating my commitment to attend by buying tickets, confirming bookings and pretending to read all the emails (I didn’t see this as a waste of time and money, so much as an investment in my future comfort), and finally pulling out–with great regret–at the very last minute. Everyone always understood. They had no other choice.
Even though the information is just a slice, it’s forthcoming and simple. Ash went out with friends. He didn’t want to be there. He tries to avoid these situations but that evening, he could not. And now we’ll discover who he ended up with and what happened.The reader starts out feeling tense and stressed, but is quickly reassured by the promise of more information.
There are so many ways to present information to a reader. In a pivotal intimacy scene, the author has critical decisions to make–whose point of view should be featured? The person whose perspective is being depicted is the person who will be exposed and vulnerable to the reader. How those motives and fears are exposed or hinted at will either increase or reduce tension. How much of the scene will be dialogue and how much internal processing? Internal processing can be more intimate, but it can also involve increased contextual divulging–which can reduce the tension. Is the author going to switch back and forth between characters? A bold choice, because having the reader adjust to these perspective shifts almost always results in reduced tension. This is why I think in romance novels, when it’s a pivotal intimacy scene, you’re going to find that authors almost always keep the perspective on the more vulnerable partner–the one who has more to lose. It allows for a huge leap in intimacy while allowing for shadows and gaps that will keep the reader hooked. It’s just a really fantastic way to layer that tension and keep the plot moving.
To see how this works in a not-sexy scene, look no further than any Mariana Zapata book. Kulti, for example. Her books tend to be entirely in the first person, from the perspective of the heroine. And whether you love the slow burn or not, it’s pretty clear to see that most of the tension is derived from the heroine trying to figure out what’s going on with the hero–and because it’s all first person, the reader doesn’t know either.
God, this man. “I’m sorry, Rey, am I a mind reader? Am I supposed to know you’d want to practice with me?”
“No. You’re stubborn and a pain in my ass.”
“I’m a pain in your ass? You’re a pain in my ass. I try and I try with you, and for what? For you to be an asshole when you’re frustrated or upset? Maybe other people will deal with your shit when you act like that, but I can only take so much. I like you. I liked how well we get along sometimes, but I don’t know anything about you really, when it comes down to it. All you do is give me these bits and pieces when you’re in the mood. When you’re not in the mood, you don’t say anything at all. Or you go through this fucking phase where you give me dirty looks and ignore me for no apparent reason. How is that supposed to make me feel?”
Tense, is the answer. Because she has no idea how he actually feels about her, and deep down she knows she’s getting in too deep. And it makes the reader feel tense, too–tense and hopeful. Because the tiny trickle of hope that those lingering looks and protective impulses are leading to ka-pow town is tantalizing and keeps us on the hook. By withholding the hero’s inner workings altogether, the author is making the reader experience relationship progression through only the heroine’s lens—which leaves quite a lot for the imagination.
This is sneaky and fun—scenes with dialogue can ramp up or cool off the tension just by how they’re structured. Lots of back and forth with minimal/strategic descriptions and context? Tense. Leisurely dialogue with frequent moments of grounding context? Calm.
Here’s one with more subtlety—it’s a scene from Lord of Scoundrels and it’s when Dain is delivering the news that he’s going to be marrying Jessica, much to her dismay.
“But we live in benighted times,” said Dain. “And I am, as Miss Trent will assure you, the most benighted of men. I have, among other quaint beliefs, the antiquated notion that if I pay for something, it ought to belong to me. Since I seem to have no choice but to pay for Miss Trent–”
“I am not a pocket watch,” she said tightly. She told herself she ought not feel in the least surprised that the cocksure clodpole proposed to settle matters by making her his mistress. “I am a human being, and you will never own me, no matter what you pay. You may have destroyed my honor in the eyes of the world, but you will not destroy it in fact.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Destroy your honor? My dear Miss Trent, I am proposing to redeem it. We shall be wed. Now, why don’t you sit down and be quiet like a good girl and let the men sort out the details.”
This is a really intense, pivotal scene, and the author provides pauses in very important places–namely, she has Jessica interrupt Dain to jerk the reader one direction, only to have a nice pause before Dain delivers the blow. The reader is carried gently by the languid sentences, only to have the shock of Dain’s true intentions come seemingly out of nowhere. What if the author had done this instead:
“But we live in benighted times, and I am, as Miss Trent will assure you, the most benighted of men. I have, among other quaint beliefs, the antiquated notion that if I pay for something, it ought to belong to me. Since I seem to have no choice but to pay for Miss Trent–”
“I’m not a pocket watch, I’m a human being, and you will never own me, no matter what you pay. You may have destroyed my honor in the eyes of the world, but you will not destroy it in fact.”
“Destroy your honor? My dear Miss Trent, I am proposing to redeem it. We shall be wed. Now, why don’t you sit down and be quiet like a good girl and let the men sort out the details.”
I have removed the careful padding from this scene and changed none of the words. Yet, when you read the scene, the pace is much faster, and there’s very little punch to Dain’s trickery. In fact, it almost sounds flippant instead of threatening, like Jessica would respond with an eye roll instead of pure shock. Why? Well, most obvious is that we’re not getting Jessica’s assumption that he wants to make her his mistress. That aside does provide context and at a pivotal moment. But even if you added that in after she says she’s not a pocket watch, it wouldn’t hit the same–and it’s because the original version provides carefully placed pauses and physical cues that interrupt the dialogue and slowly ratchet up the tension.
Speaking of structure, it’s not just scenes with dialogue that can subtly crank up the pressure. Remember that old English class tip about punctuation? If you read a sentence out loud, you breathe at the commas and pause at the periods. Well, how does it feel if there are short, punchy sentences? Tense? How about reading long, winding sentences with plenty of breaths and nicely spaced pauses? A bit more relaxing? In scenes with tension, whether it’s intimate tension or thrilling tension, you’re going to see carefully chosen sentence structures that often constrict and build as you get closer to the end of that chapter–or deconstruct in a desperate way to reflect the emotions of the scene.`
This is really easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for, and one good example is in Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me. This book has a really stellar cast of supporting characters, and all of them have remarkably developed plotlines for how focused the book remains on main characters Cal and Min. In fact, there are a good number of scenes where the lens shifts to characters who really aren’t part of the main action for the majority of the book. However, during a very memorable kissing scene with Cal and Min, the focus narrows in on Min’s reaction to Cal feeding her a donut, and it’s visceral.
He leaned forward and kissed her softly, his mouth fitting hers so perfectly that she trembled. She tasted the heat of him and licked the chocolate off his lip and felt his tongue against hers, hot and devastating, and when he broke the kiss, she was breathless and dizzy and aching for more. He held her eyes, looking as dazed as she felt, but she wasn’t deceived at all, she knew what he was.
She just didn’t care.
“More,” she said, and he reached for the pastry, but she said, “No, you,” and grabbed his shirt to pull him closer, and he kissed her hard this time, his hand on the back of her head, and she fell into him, as glitter exploded behind her eyelids. She felt his hand on her waist, sliding hot under her sweater, and her blood surged, and the rush in her head said, THIS one.
In the first paragraph, where we really get a clear image of what’s happening between Min and Cal, the sentences peppered with commas which makes them quite literally breathy–much like how you might feel if someone fed you donuts and then blew your mind with really good kisses. It’s a way of getting the reader to feel what the character is feeling–which, at this moment, is tension. Sexual tension.
Here’s what you should take away from my tension Ted Talk: when an author biffs tension, you’ll feel it immediately. It’s pretty clear when something pulls you out of the zone mid-plot, or, god forbid–you never make it into the zone in the first place. You might find yourself checking to see how much of the book is left. But even more interesting? If an author meticulously crafts the tension in their story and it’s done right, we aren’t even aware it’s happening because we’re so busy internalizing and physically feeling what the author wants us to feel. We’re swept along by the stress of what we don’t know and can’t see. And we like it that way.
As I have (hopefully) illustrated here, tension is one of the most fascinating ways authors blow our minds, without us even noticing. There are so many ways to control tension, and every single one is pretty fascinating. Next time you find yourself responding to a book, try to examine the execution of tension. I will very professionally eat my hat if it’s not tension related. If you’re willing to dive into the nerdy heaven that is writer’s craft, I guarantee you’ll find new ways to appreciate old favorites.
Books Ingrid analyzed in this piece:
1 I made that statistic up entirely.
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