Where is the Tension?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018
I feel like I've written about tension before. But I swear to you, I searched through the Muffin's blog posts, and I can't find a specific post about this topic; so if you remember better than me, please send me an email!

I bring up making sure tension is in your novel today because I recently had a conversation with one of my WOW! novelist students about tension in her novel. She has a great voice. She has a great story idea. She even started in the right place, in my opinion, and her action is spot on. But TENSION was missing. She needed to add a time element to her novel--this main character had to get himself on his correct path to the future in a "certain amount of time" or "the worst thing in the whole world" would happen.

And that wasn't happening in the beginning of her novel...yet.

Think about some novels or movies where time/age is an element. Some that immediately come to mind: Speed, The Giver, and even Hunger Games--you can't be in the Hunger Games until you are 12, and then once you are there, your time limit is: everyone has to die before you.

Think of novels where a wedding is on the horizon--there's a deadline--all the problems in the novel have to be solved before the wedding.

Or amovie where someone is terminally ill. That's another kind of deadline that can cause great stress, tension, and page-turning in a novel.

Think about real life. We work on deadlines all the time--in our personal and professional life. So it is natural that novels also need these deadlines in them.

Do critique partners say that your novel is good but something is missing?

Do you have some kind of time element in your plot to cause more tension?

If not, think about adding one. If you do have one in your work-in-progress or have a published book with one, please tell us in the comments below. We want to learn from you!

Margo L. Dill is a writing coach, editor, children's author, and instructor, living in St. Louis, MO. Her next novel writing class starts on Friday, May 4. To find out more information about Writing a Novel with a Writing Coach, please click here.


Mary Horner said...

Great topic, Margo. The ticking clock is always a good way to build tension. But I had to laugh when I read your first paragraph because I have done that so many times, being certain I had read or writeen something and not being able to find it!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Doesn't it seem like fiction is moving more towards TV/movie style pacing? I guess there's a benefit to that...write a book with riveting pace and tension and the film rights could get picked up. I guess it's a mirror of our fast-paced lives that seem to be getting faster all the time. Sometimes I find myself reading my work back and getting bored with a section--getting bored of my own work!--and so I cut. I think shorter is much better in most cases.

Since I'm writing CNF, I can't really make up a time element for the sake of truthfulness, but I DO pick instances where time is crucial to the piece...some recent ones include: a need to leave a situation, not getting caught, the last moments with a dying pet, a missing husband after a fight and constantly checking the time/texts, finishing a trail before sunset, my last romantic getaway before a hysterectomy, etc. Come to think of it, I do use the time element a lot in my writing to cause tension.

You've written so many posts! I'm not sure if you've written about this before, but even if you did, it's fine to revisit topics! :)

Sioux Roslawski said...


Arrrgh. Each time I read a post like this, I want to scurry to my WIP and see if it has the problem that's being discussed. I know. I know that's the point of the post, but it makes me panic.

I guess sometime soon I will check my manuscript for an absence of tension/dialogue that's "off" and so on...

Margo Dill said...

Sioux: we are only here to help you and not stress you out! :) the first person I ever heard talk about this ticking clock was Holly Black.

Ang: I like how you gave us several examples that are different of a time element causing tension—maybe I should have given more examples in my post!

Mary: it’s almost worse when you open a document on your laptop that says you have written it and you have no recollection! I think these are signs of genius right?

Renee Roberson said...

I feel like I have a decent grasp on building tension in my work but I have an issue with something else you wrote about in a post recently--I think it was trying to determine how to give your protagonist a deadline of some sort that he/she is racing against. That is something I struggle with. I want to present motivation without slapping the reader in the face with it--but for some reason it doesn't come naturally to me!

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