Maintaining Tension
in a Novel


Tension is a fact of human life. Peasants in the Dark Ages feared having too little, risking starving or freezing, or having too much, risking having it taken from them (and probably costing their lives); they lived with deadly tension every day.

Modern people are overwhelmed by tension, such that many take drugs to alleviate hypertension. Why would readers who need to escape tension want fiction full of tension?

Literature is full of tension, and its release is the 'happy ending'. Look at children's literature, where reading starts: The Cat in the Hat caused great tension. One Fish Two Fish was full of tension. The story in each of these books is how a growing tension was ultimately released.

A total lack of tension is called sleeping, which doesn't make for good reading. An absence of tension is unreal; a character without tension has no challenges to overcome, takes no risks, and starts no action. A person without tension would not be human, just a shell of a real person.

But the real problem with zero tension is that it gives the reader time to pause, to ask themselves: "Why am I reading this?"

Writers never want their readers to ask that question. If they do, then the answer is obvious: stop reading. Reading is work, and readers do the work because they want the reward that no other media type offers: total immersion in a book, the discovery of new worlds, and experiences that they might otherwise never know, and to enjoy it as a personal experience, seeing the action through their own minds, not the mind of some movie director. Without that reward, no one would read fiction. The last thing that they want is to lose interest in the story due to lack of tension.

Poetry requires no tension; I read Walt Whitman and others regularly, but those aren't novels. Of the greatest novel writers in history, there are only a handful who write so well that the beauty of their prose could hold my interest, but all of them pack their novels full of tension. Since they are the masters, they probably knew what they were doing.

Tension can be singular, like a character with one problem so paramount that nothing else matters, or plural, like the many struggles of daily life. Tensions can come on slowly, as in the inmate with six weeks before his execution, or quickly, where the dragon is chasing the hero through the cavern. Tension can be constant or ebb and flow. Tension can be physical, mental, or emotional; tension can even be imagined, but it must always exist.

This doesn’t mean that tension can never be resolved; in chapter 5, the rugged hero can acquire the magic wish-granting ring, but in chapter 6, the beautiful belly-dancer that he conjures with the ring must steal it from him. The tension vanished after Frodo dropped the ring into Mt. Doom; why do you think that Tolkien had Sharky take over The Shire?

One of the best methods of relieving tension is having the main characters believe that the crisis has been resolved, but the reader knows that the real trap awaits them on the way home. Another way is ending a chapter just as the main character grasps the depth of the crisis that they are facing. The classic cliff-hanger is a tried-and-true tension climax. But one of the best tension-makers is pure suspicion, simply one character worried about the secret motives of another character; few tensions can hook a reader so completely.

One of the best methods of creating tension isn't added until the plot is fully-known: make the final challenge the worst experience of the main character. Indiana Jones hated snakes, so, of course, he had to overcome his fear of snakes in the Well of Souls. If the hero must climb to the top of a mountain, why not give them a paralyzing fear of heights? If they must propose to their girlfriend, a fear of commitment would only heighten the tension.

A story can be nothing but tension, but without tension, there is no story.