Making Tension Tense

photo courtesy Daniel Y. Go
Editor Victoria Mixon, whip-smart columnist with the newly named Writer Inboxed newsletter, is back with us today to share an excerpt from her soon-to-be-released book for writers, The Art & Craft of Prose: 3rd Practitioner’s Manual. She’s provided this excerpt on Making Tension Tense to WU exclusively. Enjoy!

Making Tension Tense

What really makes tension tense?

The modern reader’s expectation of tension—a story that stands above the crowd—can seem to the aspiring writer sometimes unbearably high. And yet it’s always been true that storytelling is about tension. The reader has always longed to be transported physically to another dimension through sheer adrenaline.

So let’s talk about what makes tension tense.


The oldest trick in the book.

Hemingway wrote so beautifully of this in his memoir of Paris in the 1920s, A Moveable Feast.

Knowing—as we do—that curiosity is the single most powerful reader motivation out there, we can pretty easily guess that giving the reader a devastating question and then withholding the answer fuels reader curiosity like nothing else.

This is why I read so much vintage mystery. Those things are absolutely chocked to the eyeballs with questions to which the answers are adroitly yet firmly withheld until the final pages. Thriller and romance, the other two biggest-selling modern genres, do the same.

Addicting stuff.

So we writers focus upon our scenes set in concrete details and our forward motion, we eliminate all internal dialog, and we minimalize internal monologue and exposition as much as humanly possible.

Through these simple techniques, we keep the reader’s curiosity piqued yet unsatisfied, page after page, for literally hundreds of pages—until the very. . .last. . .moment. . .

When we limit ourselves in this way to anchor the reader in scenes, it creates—inside the reader—enormous contrast between the stress of not-knowing, or “push,” and the joy of realization, or “pull.”

Two opposite poles, extreme contrast between them, and the reader caught inextricably in the middle, with nowhere to go except forward: this Push/Pull Rhythm moves the story out of the book and into the reader’s body, which is where all story rightfully belongs.

We never tell the reader what’s happening beneath the surface unless it makes that surface only more fascinating. Subtext is for the reader to discover.

Their ultimate delight.

“Does this skirt make my butt huge?”

“It’s fine.” She ran her hands over her own bony hips with a satisfied smile.

Now, what’s missing from this snippet of scene?

Why, the explanation, of course. What are these two characters thinking? What’s going on inside their heads? The reader doesn’t want the writer to tell them. Through simple dialog, action, and description the reader is drawn irrevocably into the scene—into the conflict between these two characters and the subtext obviously leading them forward toward ultimate disaster.

She raised her eyebrows and gave a sour laugh. “I like your tie.”

“So do I,” he said quietly, smoothing it.

What’s happening between these characters? The reader doesn’t want the writer to explain. Once they know that, they stop reading.

The reader wants to follow these characters through the ensuing pages, venturing deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole to find out for themself why these characters are at odds in such a peculiar manner and what they’re going to do about it.

“You’ve got no proof! Either show me your warrant, or I’ll be obliged to call my lawyer.”
The Chief-Inspector smiled. “You’re free to go.”

The man stopped and stared, and after a long moment the color drained from his face.

Why is he free to go? Why is the Chief-Inspector smiling about it? And why does unexpected freedom make the color leave the man’s face?

Will he leave, or has this surprise created such tension between the characters that he’ll be unable to tear himself away, until he learns—and the reader learns with him—what’s behind this smile that must be a mask, this generosity the man believes (or knows) he has not earned?

Questions, questions, questions!

The reader must keep reading in order to learn the answers.

But, then, what about the opposite end of the spectrum of tension technique?

PhotobucketFleeting Exposure

Sometimes a succinct, focused line of exposition or internal monologue is appropriate—so long as it makes the reader’s internal tension worse:

He gave an odd gesture Maigret had never seen a French businessman make before.

Alleyn didn’t want Troy to know.

In a flash, Miss Marple understood.

All of these brief, fleeting moments of insight beneath the surface of the scenes depend upon the reader having read previous scenes in these novels.

However, the insights don’t show the author’s hand. Instead, the author depends upon the reader to have learned these characters so well that a single line exposes the great significance underlying the actual text—that essential subtext.

Maigret, wonderful creation of the impossibly-productive Belgian author Georges Simenon, is a Parisian Chief-Inspector with a long and spectacular history of solving unsolvable crimes. There is pretty much nothing Maigret has never seen a French businessman do.

Therefore, the reader concludes from the exposition, either this is not a French businessman (as he must, logically, have lead Maigret or at least the reader to believe) or this is a French businessman with some bizarre twist to his personality, making him ever more intriguing and his fate ever more inexplicable.

This reader conclusion pulls the reader further in and makes them even more a part of the story.

But which answer is it? That push fuels the reader’s curiosity!

Alleyn is also a Detective Chief-Inspector, this one a charmer invented by the New Zealand author Ngiao Marsh to forge a brilliant reputation for solving crime for London’s Scotland Yard. Agatha Troy, the reader already knows from earlier in this novel, is Alleyn’s wife, the one person in the world from whom he withholds nothing.

The reader realizes, therefore, that this must be an impossible situation for Alleyn. And so the reader turns the pages quickly, reading with greater and greater anxiety, in order to discover what the charming and unflappable Alleyn will do about this, how he will behave when all other avenues are closed to him and he is trapped in an untenable situation in which he has no other way to behave.

Again, this realization pulls the reader in. Now they have even more investment in discovering what happens in this particular story.

And the fact that they don’t know yet gives them that push of extra tension.

Reader investment!

Miss Marple, of course, is not a Chief-Inspector in any country or even an Inspector at all. She is a ridiculously sharp-witted elderly village woman upon whom nothing is ever lost.

And when the reader learns that Miss Marple finally understands the secret of the mystery, reader investment in the story goes through the ceiling—now they, too, feel an uncontrollable urge to understand, armed as they are with the author’s promise that Miss Marple knows and the assumption that she’ll eventually share that flash of illumination.

Unfortunately, Miss Marple’s creator, the inimitable Agatha Christie, can take another third of the novel to get around to Miss Marple sharing, and in the meantime the reader turns the pages so fast they’re practically tearing them out of the book.

Learning that someone the reader trusts knows a secret is a fabulous pull. They know! the reader thinks. That means I will too!

And Christie’s tantalizing spinning-out toward the moment of sharing gives the reader an enormous push straight forward, deep into those oh, so-secretive pages.

Full-on reader addiction!

Which brings us to the beginnings of stories and the reason so many first lines are exposition or internal monologue, even in stories by authors thoroughly fluent in the techniques of creating tension through scenes.

Because that’s the one place in which the writer must lasso the reader’s curiosity without relying upon knowledge of previous scenes.

This is also why we can get away with hooks in which the reader has no idea on earth what’s going on.

Readers love to be mystified!

Truly, we don’t want to write stories about which the reader says, “Oh, I see. I get it. All is explained.”

We want to write stories that make the reader sit bolt upright with their hair on end and shriek uncontrollably, “I can’t stand how good this is!”

Note: I must always thank our fellow Writer Unboxed contributor Don Maass for teaching us that we need “tension on every page.” If we never learn anything else about writing stories, we must learn this one succinct insight.

Our Writer Unboxed mama Therese Walsh gave us a lesson once on the first sentence as an amuse-bouche that we should all be re-reading regularly.

Also, I discuss the difference between internal dialog and internal monologue in the November issue of the Writer Unboxed newsletter.

What makes you shriek, “I can’t stand how good this is”?


About Victoria Mixon

Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for thirty years and now works as an independent editor through her blog, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner's Manual, and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner's Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators. She also writes the "Ask Victoria" column for the Writer Unboxed newsletter. Always on the look-out for quality editing clients, she can be found on Google+ and Twitter.


  1. says

    I struggle with how much of the characters’ inner thoughts to reveal to the reader. My natural tendency is to reveal all of their inner thoughts, perhaps because the writers I admire most do just that. If you have read Michael Chabon’s new novel. Telegraph Avenue, he is in the heads of all the POV characters and I love the way he does it. For me the tension is that the reader knows what each character is thinking but knows also that the other characters have no idea what they are thinking and thus cannot see disaster ahead. The author’s skill is in playing out that disaster in ways the reader doesn’t expect. I would love to get your advice because I am constantly admonished by my critique group for getting too far inside the heads of my characters. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    • says

      Hi CG–

      The issue you bring up here is really important! It’s one I see over and over in clients’ manuscripts: wondering how to do what the bestsellers do and why it doesn’t seem to work for those of us with less experience and/or smaller audiences.

      I’ve talked about this a lot on my blog, because I understand that writers are seeing an awful lot of ‘telling’ in modern fiction these days:

      3 Things to Know About Exposition & Telling

      3 More Things to Know About Exposition & Telling

      There’s also another post on my blog describing the different layers of quality in fiction as it pertains to show-vs-tell, but I can’t find it right now. I have way too much stuff on my blog. :)

      When we focus upon writing in scenes and save our exposition for certain, special lines, that throws the exposition into high relief, so it can serve its special function of a peek behind the curtains.

      However, when we ‘tell all,’ then we must have developed an enormously smooth and solid stylistic voice with which to carry the weight of all that exposition. Then the reader falls for the voice more than the story.

      Those stylistic voices take years and years and years to develop properly, and they take line-editing by a professional editor like you simply would not believe. Even someone as canonical as Anne Rice produces much smoother and more solid stylistic voice when she’s line-edited (which she is not always).

      Line-editing by publishers’ editors, sadly, has fallen by the wayside at many publishing houses these days. So what we see in published fiction is not necessarily the best fiction that it could be.

      Head-hopping POV such as you’re describing in Chabon’s novel is actually an intensely sophisticated technique. It’s so easy to lose reader investment in our protagonist(s) or, worse, confuse the reader about who the protagonist actually is when we keep switching perspective on them.

      It’s not that you can’t learn to do what Chabon does. Obviously, he learned it.

      It’s that it takes a really long time and a ton of writerly dedication in order to learn the most sophisticated techniques of this craft. And it takes a knowledgeable mentor.

      If you want to do what Chabon does, study him with a microscope. Take his chapters apart sentence-by-sentence. Ask yourself constantly, ‘Why was it essential to this story for him to include this?’ and, especially, ‘What would I have put in that he has left out?’

      Also remember to ask yourself, ‘What was the publishing industry like while Chabon was learning his craft?’ Chabon almost certainly had a knowledgeable line-editor at his publishing house who taught him how to polish his stylistic voice. Today’s publishing industry, sadly, does not always provide a writer with this mentoring.

      We can’t get that professional mentoring from our peers.

      And definitely read The Moveable Feast to learn how Hemingway discovered exactly how much exposition is the right amount of exposition for reader epiphany.

      That guy knew his beans!

  2. says

    This is interesting to me. Your advice about omission seems to be almost the opposite of some of the advice in Lisa Cron’s last post here:
    In Lisa’s post, she points out how we all see the world differently, and because of this, we often leave readers baffled because the actual story is in the ommitted details of what the characters are thinking. We have to be careful to let readers know what’s at stake, the true nature of each conflict, for tension to matter to the reader.

    I’m sure it’s just a matter of striking the right balance and continuing to walk that fine line. Fun examples here. Thanks for getting me thinking this morning, Victoria.

    • says

      You always have such helpful things to bring up, Vaughn!

      The key to bringing the reader into our characters’ worlds truly isn’t the ‘telling.’ It’s the way we’re all designed to get to know people in person: by observation.

      That’s why fiction based mostly on scenes lasts throughout the ages in the wonderful way that it does. Every reader who watches characters move through their scenes sees something unique, something colored by their own personal uniqueness.

      That’s how the reader gets hooked.

      Yes, we do all see the world in our own special ways. And that’s what we must take into account when we write for an audience: that reader themself sees the world in their own special way. Telling them to see it our way doesn’t bring them into the story. It actually works to separate them from our characters and—most importantly—to separate them from using their own special way of seeing the world to reach epiphany.

      That’s the golden, shining moment we’re after: not a reader we can teach to see things our protagonist’s way, but a reader cast off the rainbow into epiphany in what they discover, by way of our story, about themself.

  3. says

    John Le Carre sucks me in with his ever-so civilized surface observations that subversively scream ‘something’s not right here’. His subtext, subtext, subtext winds me around his finger quietly and inextricably. Even his reveals are underplayed. Drives me crazy. Drives me forward.

    • says

      Oh, yes, Alex—that subtext is so seductive! It’s like the difference between really talented flirting and just taking off your clothes.

      Le Carre has been doing this work for so long, and there’s a reason his stuff keeps driving readers obsessively forward, even his earlier work.

      He’s a master!

  4. says

    Great post, Victoria. I agree with Vaughn that the question of how much detail to add (enough to clarify, but not so much that all tension evaporates) is such a tricky line to walk.

    I recently did an editing project where the writer wasn’t giving quite enough detail; he was expecting the reader to be a mind-reader. When I brought this up with him, he claimed I just didn’t understand the “east coast mentality.” OK! I wish I could send him both your post and Lisa Cron’s post.

    How do we manage to stay on that fine line (enough but not too much detail)? Is it a gut feeling that comes with experience? Do great writers just have that inborn instinct . . . and emerging writers learn to develop that instinct?

    Thanks much, Victoria!

    • says

      You know, Sarah, it’s really a matter of long, exhaustive, intensive study of canonical work across all the genres, and long, exhaustive, intensive practice, both imitating those writers and practicing random acts of literature to loosen our internal voices, and—even on top of all that—the guidance of a professional who’s been in this field longer than we have.

      It’s also a matter of studying in-depth the cheap throwaway stuff of all ages and comparing it to fiction that’s lasted, always asking ourselves, ‘Why? Why did this survive and that didn’t? Why are reader still reading this and not that? What are the differences?’

      It’s really difficult, I know. That’s why it’s taken me thirty years to learn what I know about this craft. It’s a ton of work! And maybe I’m a slow learner.

      The trick is to remember one simple rule: we want to write our stories in just exactly the right words, which means only those words absolutely necessary and no others.

      I almost always tell clients to overwrite their scenes. Then we have plenty to cut! It’s that overwriting that allows the writer to sink into the scene fully enough to produce the significant details that bring it alive in a way no writer has ever brought such a scene alive before.

      Then your editor teaches you how to trim out the unnecessary stuff.


      In fact, a very talented client from years ago—with an MA in Creative Writing, all kinds of published stories, and two novels with his top literary agent—just told me the other day that I’ve taken up habitation in his head, so when he’s writing he’ll often think, ‘Victoria would tell me to cut that out. DELETE.’

      I’m afraid I was diabolically amused.

  5. says

    Thanks for sharing this insight. It gave me one of those “aha” moments of realization. And it got me thinking of the ways I’ve unknowingly applied to my current project. Now that I know what I’m doing, I can make it even better. So thanks again.

    • says

      Oh, you’re very welcome, Jack!

      There is so much to learn in this fascinating craft. So many books, so many secret techniques, so many marvels at our fingertips.

      And yet, as Hemingway pointed out (and the proved), it’s extraordinary how it keeps coming back to the simplest advice in life: “Less is more.”

  6. says

    Great post!

    “They know! the reader thinks. That means I will too!”

    That is a big part of the pull and appeal of Sherlock Holmes, I think. In all his many incarnations. (Stories, movies, TV series, etc.)

    For me, the tension between characters is the greatest pull, I think. I love a good mystery, but relationships are what hook me long-term, time and time again.

    • says

      Kristan, Conan Doyle was a fiend with Sherlock Holmes. You know why? Because he didn’t tell us the clues. He had Holmes show them in his dialog. It makes Holmes look like a genius just because he gets to see things that we don’t know about!

      Conan Doyle was a big ole cheater, is what he was. But it’s still a huge thrill to ride that rollercoaster with him.

      Yes, in all fiction the tension between the characters is what intrigues the reader. Because we human beings are designed to be fascinated by the ways in which we negotiate life. How do we do it alone? How do we do it among ourselves?

      Always, always, we writers are showing the reader, ‘This is how we do it,’ and leading the reader by their own addiction to these questions—which they bring to us themself—into a place where we can push them off into freefall, into the wonderful world of epiphany.

  7. says

    You’ve definitely got me thinking outside the box this morning! Tension is something I always need to be doubly aware of… because otherwise I’ll just assume that the reader can in fact read my mind. I have to consider what the reader actually knows or doesn’t know. “Are they mystified enough?” I ask myself. A hint of mystery in any genre makes it shine!

    • says

      Yes, Jillian! Exactly. “Are they mystified enough?”

      That’s the tension that makes the page sparkle with an unearthly light.

      “Does this scene feel real and alive enough? Does the reader feel like they’re actually there? Are they personally, viscerally invested in how it turns out?”

      Telling the reader too much is probably the biggest problem I see in the manuscripts of aspiring writers. It sucks the tension right out of the story.

      But the reader needs a really good reason to turn that darn page!

      And curiosity has always been our downfall as a species. :)

  8. says

    I love all discussions on creating tension. The subject fascinates me.

    Victoria, I was thinking through the contrasts between your suggestions and Lisa’s. If I’ve understood them, I think it partly comes down to preference–whether one tends to write and read what Don calls “hot” or “cold.” (Emotional versus intellectual, as I understand it.)

    All writers can benefit from being well-rounded, so as one who tends to write hot, I need the reminder to focus on subtext, micro-puzzles, and showing.

    But would you agree balance and context are everything? That POV and genre expectations will influence a writer’s choice?

    For example, if you’re writing first person or deep third, you cannot withhold a character’s internal dialogue or interpretation of events. It’s part of what readers choose to follow. (Try to imagine a YA or a romance without going into the MC’s head.) Tension can come from the character misinterpreting events, or what we know from another POV that they don’t know, or micro-questions that are raised, as well as the rising action.

    But if you’re writing hardboiled mysteries or literary fiction, distance can be more effective.

    Anyway, forgive the long comment. Trying to think through an apparent paradox that I don’t think is.

    • says

      Hey you! I always love your contributions to discussions. . .

      There’s a really important point in what you’re saying, and that’s ‘internal dialogue.’ That’s why I mentioned the Writer Inboxed newsletter in the notes at the end of this post.

      Internal dialog is not the same thing as internal monologue. So, yeah, all fiction is improved by removing every spec of internal dialogue. Removing the dialog structure strengthens the writing and pulls the reader more deeply into the fictional world, because the reader must invest themself in their understanding of why this particular exposition is essential to the story.

      Internal monologue can heighten tension if, as you say, we’re using multiple POVs and the reader knows things the characters don’t know. It’s a particular technique for a particular type of tension. But that can still be accomplished by showing rather than telling, and it’s more nerve-wracking (and therefore addictive) for the reader if they’re seeing things heading toward a train wreck rather than just being told about them.

      Don, of course, knows fiction really well. He’s written and successfully published it, and now he works up to his eyeballs in it every day. His description of “hot” versus “cold” is an interesting look at stylistic voice. And I’ve seen Don encapsulate perfectly the concept of exposition in saying, “It must always serve the purpose of increasing tension.”

      Always. Absolutely.

      I know, I used mystery examples in this piece because I happened to have a Maigret open on my desk while I was writing, but the truth is I’ve studied this work across pretty much all genres, and it operates the same in each one.

      Curiosity. Tension.

      Even Jane Eyre, one of the foundation stones of modern romance, heightens tension by showing us a clue but not telling us what it means until the crucial moment—when St. John reveals that he has discovered Jane’s real name scribbled on a piece of paper on her desk, where she’s been doodling while she worked on her students’ papers. And that is the clue to Jane’s choice between staying with St. John and returning to that old curmudgeon Rochester. The climactic hoice that is the whole point of Jane’s story!

      Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier, who pioneered mainstream romance in the 1960s, also used the techniques of showing rather than telling. They both cranked those hair-raising novels out like crazy: scenes, scenes, scenes. They had it down to a science.

      And Judy Blume—who basically invented the distinction between Middle Grade and Young Adult with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret—relied far less on interior monologue and far more on scenes than we’d assume from having read and loved that novel.

      As I was telling Sarah and CG, it’s all in the long, exhaustive study of exactly what went onto those canonical pages.

      The greats have always used not only words but their knowledge of what the reader brings to the story to play with our preconceptions and expectations.

      And in this way they crossed that magical line between the page and the reader’s life.

      • says

        Thanks for the detailed response, Victoria. You must be tired after all that thought and typing!

        Du Maurier and Stewart are two of my faves. Will continue to ponder this, because it is so necessary to do well.

        Stay warm and dry.

  9. says

    As I was reading this post, I had a similar thought to Jan’s. How much of this depends on the genre? For some, so much of the tension is internal. But yes, Donald Maass’s urging remains true, tension keeps the pages turning.

    Curiosity is a great way to keep tension high and readers engaged and yet not a technique I had specifically named. Thanks for the great article.

    • says

      Hi Julie,

      As I was telling Jan, it might seem like a genre-specific issue just because I was lazy and used the book on my desk at the moment for my second set of examples. (I’m familiar enough with Marsh and Christie to be able to paraphrase them off the top of my head.)

      The first set of examples could be in any story, any genre.

      Because, of course, tension is essential for all genres. And curiosity is that crazy fuel that keeps the reader invested in that tension.

      I work with writers writing in almost all genres. And it’s true that mystery uses a particular type of tension. Thriller uses another. Romance another. Fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, children’s fiction, literary fiction. . .they all have their special strengths.

      But curiosity—wow, that reader motivation simply never gets old!

  10. says

    Thank you so much, everyone, for bringing to us all your interest and dedication and—yes!—curiosity about this beloved craft. It’s so fun to talk about this stuff, and I’m so glad I was able to answer some questions and share our communal passion for the work we do.

    If you don’t see me crop up answering any more comments, please forgive me. We’ve been having a huge storm in our neck of the woods, and I could lose my power and Internet connection at any time.

    I’m also winding down my work today for my annual disappearance offline, in which I spend every December incognito hanging out with my wonderful son. So I have clients to catch up with today before my work year ends and I turn into a pumpkin.

    Plus, my son and I are finishing writing his annual book today—we have a deadline so it can be formatted and printed in time to be his ‘big’ holiday gift.

    Big day! So please knock on wood for me that we don’t lose our power and wind up finishing writing our book by hand, the old-fashioned way.

    Happy holidays to all of you! May we have peace on earth and great literature forever at our fingertips.


  11. says

    These are all great techniques, and ones that require a certain finesse. In particular, I struggle with omission, both as a writer and a reader. You want to withhold enough that the reader is intrigued, but not so much as to seem… well, like you’re purposefully withholding information that should be obvious and known by that point in the story. The danger with omitting too much is that you will unduly frustrate the reader, and also that the reveal will seem too random or convenient later. In most cases, I think proper omission still requires the writer to hint at a thing rather than straight-up leave it out. You can withhold the full details, but you still have to provide a tiny clue.

  12. says

    Agatha Christie truly was the mistress of crime in the way that she created suspense. Perhaps that is one of the key differences between her writing and that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Dame Agatha wove tantalizing suspicions and feeling into her books, whereas the Sherlock Holmes stories were very straightforward and masculine. This is not to disparage against Sir Doyle’s writing; his form worked for the character of Holmes, just as Agatha Christie’s form worked for her characters.

  13. says

    Wonderful blog! I don’t write mysteries but all of your points can be used any story to create tension. Thanks for the comprehensive explanations.