Five Ways to Turn Up the Tension

Written by Ryan R. Campbell

Ryan R. Campbell is an International Book Awards finalist, the founder of the Writescast Network, and the co-founder of Kill Your Darlings Candle Company.

Posted on October 28, 2016

Filed under writing | writing tips

When you’re a writer, it’s you against the world. It takes only one email, text, or pot of boiling-over stew to distract a reader from your work. So how can a writer keep readers’ noses buried deep in the space between pages (and also ruin their dinner)?The answer to that, my friends, is tension.So how do you keep tension high throughout your WIP? Let’s take a look at five ways to turn your current project’s tension from a four up to eleven.


The best way to engage readers from the get-go is to make a promise to them. Simply by putting words on the page, you’ve already promised to them that something is going to happen. Not every story can be Waiting for Godot.

But any old something happening isn’t enough to keep most readers around. Consider the following opening line to a short story. Let’s pull in our favorite friend, Dale, as our main character.

     Dale had to wash the dishes.

All right, so there’s that. This opening line is certainly a promise to the reader that Dale is going to have to make a decision about his dishes at some point, but who cares? Your readers have dishes to do, too. Why should they give half a hoot about Dale and his dirty-dish disaster?

Let’s try introducing a deadline. Maybe that will turn things up a bit.

     Dale had to wash the dishes by 8 p.m.

Okay, okay… so Dale has got to get a move on here. We still have our promise to the reader, and the deadline of 8 p.m. injects a marginal amount of urgency, but–oh, hang on. My phone just vibrated. I better check it and OH THAT’S RIGHT NO ONE CARES ABOUT DALE’S DISHES.

We need to turn up the Tension Dial on this operation a little bit. How do we do that, you ask?


You can make use of deadlines all you want, but they’re only effective if the stakes are high. This is true even in real life. There’s a huge difference between “I need a donut in the next minute” and “I need some insulin in the next minute.” Though the deadline is the same for both, the latter introduces a much greater sense of urgency (read: tension) because the implied stakes are significantly higher.

Turning back to our example with Dale, we’ll turn the Tension Dial  just a bit higher.

     Dale had to untie his daughter from the train tracks by 8 p.m.

Holy hell, Dale! How did this happen? This scenario is mustache-twirlingly cliché! You should have seen this coming.

But then your reader rereads the line. Oh, Dale has until 8 p.m. to untie his daughter. That’s either one very slow train or the train schedules are really reliable around there. Maybe Dale will have time to buy the proper tools at the hardware store first and then–ooh, that reminds me: I need to buy myself that deluxe tire iron my cousin Tina told me about AND OH MY GOD YOU LOST YOUR READER AGAIN.

That brings me to my next point. Deadlines and high stakes are great, but only if you can get them to work in tandem. Given that, let’s see what we can do to rework our opening sentence.

     Dale had thirty seconds to untie his daughter from the train tracks.

Ohgodohgodohgod! Get a move on, Dale! Ugh, I wish you had stuck with the Boy Scouts long enough to get that “How to Untie Various Knots” badge. There’s nothing you can do about that now, though, so stop worrying about it. You need to rush to save your daughter.

At this point, your reader might be hooked. Hey, even I want to know what happens to Dale and I’m the guy writing the thing. (Fun fact: if you’re in suspense as the writer, your reader will likely be in suspense, too.)

Believe it or not, though, there are still three more ways to add tension to this opener. Let’s crank up that Tension Dial one more notch.


Another way to drag your reader kicking and screaming through your pages is by assuring them that there is no middle ground. The stakes have to be high AND they have to be addressed by a deadline OR something terrible happens. Terrible is relative, of course, but the key word in that sentence is “or.”

Our last draft’s opening line implies that Dale’s daughter will die if he doesn’t untie his daughter from the railroad tracks in the next 30 seconds. This is already a pretty good “or” since at no point should a reasonable reader think, “Well, if Dale doesn’t succeed maybe he and the train can work something out where it slows down just enough to–” No. Just no.

The fact that we have an implied “or” makes for a scene that is already wrought with tension, but what if I told you there was a way to milk the possibility of her death for even more tension? Well, there is.

     Dale had thirty seconds to untie his daughter from the train tracks–or the secret to defeating Doctor Zygbo’s Apocalypsebot would be lost forever.

Dammit, Dale! Why did you wait until there were only 30 seconds left to save your daughter? She’s the only one that knows how to stop Doctor Zygbo’s bot. Our lives are at stake now, too!

See how that works? By introducing that “or statement,” we’ve both upped the stakes, and the possible outcomes are absolute. The way the above is presented, there is no “third option” wherein Dale fails to save his daughter and humankind still survives the onslaught that Apocalypsebot is sure to bring about.

Hold on, you’re thinking to yourself, that was only number three on the list. We still have two more to go? We do, yes. Hold onto your butts, ’cause it’s about to get realer than real.


Antagonists can take many forms. In the scene above, at least three are mentioned–the train, Doctor Zygbo, and Apocalypsebot. Though only one of these is on scene (the train), it alone introduces a great deal of tension.
But… but… WHAT IF DOCTOR ZYGBO HIMSELF WERE TO APPEAR? My heart is racing already.

     Dale had thirty seconds to untie his daughter from the train tracks–or the secret to defeating Doctor Zygbo’s Apocalypsebot would be lost forever. “If you’re going to save her, you’ll have to get through me first,” Doctor Zygbo said as he trained his laser pistol on Dale.

Oh me. Oh my. Dale, Dale, Dale. How is Dale going to get out of this one? He now has to get through Zygbo before he can even start to untie his poor daughter.

Okay, one might say, but you kind of cheated there. You’ve added a second sentence, and all of it reads pretty clunkily now.

Well, if you’re saying that, it’s because it’s true. This brings us to the final step in ensuring each page you write teems with tension.


To turn your tension up to 11, you’ve got to let your prose do some of the heavy lifting for you. Things like rhythm, word choice, and sensory details all go a long way into guaranteeing your readers remain immersed in the text. Let’s see what we can do with the scene as previously described, while working in the prose strategies described above.


     The tracks rumbled as the train approached. “Dad,” Dale’s daughter cried. “Help.”
Dale raced toward where his daughter remained sequestered, his heart throbbing in his neck. It would be a miracle if he were able to free her before the train brought his daughter’s life–and any hope of defeating Doctor Zygbo’s Apocalypsebot–to an end.
Dale pushed his way through the brush.  “I’m on my way.” The train horn erupted with anger, its brakes squealing in its impossible goal of stopping in time. “Daddy’s almost there.”
Just as he emerged on the far side of the tall grass, a shadow shifted across the tracks. His blood ran cold at the sight of Doctor Zygbo.
“I’ll need you to stop right there,” Zygbo said. In his hand, a laser pistol whirred to life.

Whew. I bet you’re wondering what happens next. You are? THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT. Tension breeds curiosity, and curiosity presses your reader to keep turning the page.

I could tell you what comes next for Zygbo, Dale, and his daughter… but why don’t you come back next week to find out?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some dishes to do.

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