3 Ways Writers Rob Tension from Their Scenes

A lot of people see writing as an art, and, to an extent, I agree with them. Figuring out your story, determining the exact right words to use, painting a picture with your description are all creative, artistic endeavors.

There’s another side of writing that is just as important — technique.

If you use a particular technique, you’re going to create a particular result every time. Figuring out which one to use is creative; the actual use is technical. Each technique is a gear, and, when you fit the right gears together in the right order, you create an engine that hums along and draws in the reader.

The fuel most commonly used for that engine is tension. A character wants something, and the writer creating doubt about the character’s ability to achieve that objective creates interest for the reader.

I’ve offer critiques to a lot of writers, and I’ve noticed three ways that they unintentionally rob their stories of that crucial fuel.

One – The characters have a blasé attitude toward the opposition to the goal.

Take this example:

The bullet whizzed past Joe. He yawned and stretched before lazily reaching for his gun.

I started out with a tense situation. A bullet implies that Joe’s life is in danger and gives him an immediate, important goal — to escape with his life. The bullet also implies the presence of opposition to Joe’s goal in the form of the person who fired the bullet.

With two of the primary elements for tension present, I should be well on my way to a fantastic scene. Instead, I rob all my hard work with the second sentence. For tension to exist, the reader must have some doubt that Joe is going to escape with his life. Since the reader is seeing the action through the filter that is Joe, his blasé attitude will infect the reader and pull out all the tension.

So, obviously I’m saying that you can never have a badass character who laughs in the face of danger. No. Do you think I’m an idiot who doesn’t know that “Joe” exists in hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions, of novels? If those authors can make Joe work, so can you. My point is that you have to know that you’ve killed your tension and fix the issue.

Perhaps the scene continues this way:

“I hate you!” Jill yelled.

Joe rose from behind the crate and shot the guy drawing a bead on her. She drew back her arm and readied her throwing knife. Another bullet passed by Joe, this one close enough to rip his leather jacket.

Damn, he thought, I loved that coat.

Before he could adjust his aim to the new threat, the red handle of Jill’s knife appeared sticking for the man’s eye socket.

The laser from a third assailant’s rifle glowed red on Jill’s shirt, and he shot the guy in the center of the forehead. A flash of red passed before Joe’s eyes, and a blade impaled the wall inches from him.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” she yelled.

Now, the action is a comedic backdrop for the tension-filled argument between two lovers.

Another method might be to reveal information to the reader in a previous scene that the POV character doesn’t have. Perhaps Joe is so confident because he’s a superninja who can take out scores of mortal opponents without taking a scratch. Unfortunately for him, his three opponents are all superninjas! That “Oh crap” moment when he realizes it can be a lot of fun.

Bottom line: If you’re going to populate your story with these types of characters, understand the challenge you’re creating for yourself and figure out ways around it.

Two – The author inserts inappropriate description.

The other day, I’m reading a book, and I get to an action scene. Bullets are flying. Giant robotic creatures are terrorizing nineteenth century London in pursuit of, essentially, Frankenstein monsters (Unfortunately, I am not making this up). The time-traveling POV character arrives in the midst of this mayhem, and the author — wait for it — decides to insert long paragraphs describing the city.


Description is a great tool. When used appropriately to set the scene, to control pacing, etc., it absolutely belongs in your story. In this case, it did nothing other than kill the tension. If the POV character has time to study the city streets, she’s probably not all that concerned about her life. If she’s not concerned, why should the reader be?

If you feel the pacing needs a break, focus on something that increases tension rather than kills it. Taking a paragraph to describe in detail the tip of the sword thrusting at your hero emphasizes that the POV character is focused on the danger, which in turn focuses the reader on the danger.

Three – The author tells instead of shows.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I take a more lenient stance toward telling than some. This attitude doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that showing should be your default technique.

Think of it this way: Your buddy comes up to you and says, “I survived a gunfight yesterday.”

It’s possible that you, as an author, are thinking, “See, that creates immediate tension and interest. It’s just not a usual situation for one of your friends to be involved in a gunfight.”

Granted, unless you are a cop or a soldier (and, even then, I’d guess your actual gun battles are fairly limited) it’s not all that common for your friends to be in gunfights, and, if one of them comes to you with such a story, your ears are going to perk up. There’s a fallacy here, though.

While my in real life buddies don’t routinely get shot at, characters in the books I read or shows I watch do. There’s absolutely nothing inherently exciting to me about one of those characters being in that situation.

Contrast the telling with the author showing the character in a gunfight. This technique allows me to experience the gunfight, and, as long as I feel doubt that I’m going to survive, that introduces tension.


3 thoughts on “3 Ways Writers Rob Tension from Their Scenes

  1. You have a good point. It reminded me of the time when a guy put a razor blade to my throat. I was in a work-study program at college repairing books in an isolated room with 2 women and a man. They quietly went about their work while I dove deep into an argument with the only male amongst us–a man from a large inner-city slum who was there on a scholarship–as I mended the spine of a book. He was quick enough with the attack that I’d imagine he’d had a lot of practice. The 2 ladies gasped. I kept working as if he weren’t pulling at my neck, the razors edge more than a little irritating. What was my first dramatic thought–the thing that would pull a reader into this true story? I can’t say there was one, other than if this guy is here on a scholarship, he’s smart enough not to throw it away over an argument.

    “If you’re going to cut my throat, try not to get any blood on my blouse,” I said, still working away. “I just bought it.”

    He released his grip, chuckling as he said, “You got guts.”

    To note that I was naive when I was younger is like saying puppies are clumsy. There was never a moment I feared for my life. My point of view wasn’t all that interesting, yet the paled faces of the other 2 women weren’t very interesting either (I find ineffectual gasps as irritating as whining). I have a long way to go before mastering the art and technique of creating tension in my scenes. How do you go about creating more tension in a scene like that and still keep it true?

    • Your situation is exactly like the one described in the post. One option is to change POV. While you did not feel threatened, both of the ladies felt you were and the guy knew his intent. Showing through one of them would let you focus on the danger.

      The other option is to present information to the reader that you, the POV character, doesn’t know. A prologue where the guy kills someone in just such a manner gives the reader a reason to worry even as the POV character doesn’t.

      Does that help?

      • My apologies for not getting back to you. I just discovered the “notifications” part of WordPress and found your comments. I am–to put it mildly–quite embarrassed at my lack of blog etiquette.

        This is one of the many things I love about writing–learning to imagine what is in other people’s heads.

        –The POV of the “assailant” who was trying so hard to leave the ghetto behind, only to have one mistake send him back again.
        –The POV of 2 young women facing a man with a razor blade in a lonely library back room.

        You sparked the memory of walking in the dark to a park with a girl who was scared out of her mind. She did it out of fear for my safety, risking her own life to help another. It took years to understand why she was so frightened.

        Thank you for the reminder that inside of us is the emotion, the experience to imagine.

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