Creating tension in fiction and memoir

Michael Mohr
Michael Mohr

by Michael Mohr

One of the toughest things to do in fiction or creative nonfiction writing, in my professional opinion, is to create strong, believable tension. Without tension—between the protagonist and a villain, the protagonist and him/herself, the protagonist and the environment, etc.—you really don’t have much of a story. And it’s unlikely readers will want to follow you far through the jungle of your narrative.

Tension seems to be lumped in usually with plot. I agree that plot and tension often go hand in hand, but I also think that stories which essentially lack, for the most part, any real sense of “A-plus-B-equals-C” type of standard plot (meaning one thing happens which forces another to happen, etc., a sort of “causes and conditions” situation) can still grab readers’ interest and hold our attention for 250, 300 pages…as long as you’ve got real, authentic tension.

So, the question arrives: How do you create tension? What, exactly, is tension anyway?

Tension creates drama: friction; movement. Like two sticks rubbing together to create fire. And that’s what you want in fiction or memoir: A burst of flames. We can all relate to things we want but can’t quite ever have. Perhaps by the end of the story you’ve written the character does finally get that thing, whatever it is, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological.

Think of a character. Now make sure that character wants something. Your whole book, or a significant portion of it, should include your character trying to get that thing and not achieving it. If you design a fully-rounded character, one that we care about, one that’s fully fleshed-out and realistic, then we should be able to empathize with that created character’s wants/desires. Once we care, you’re in. Now all you have to do is find that tension.

Without tension, you really don’t have much of a story. And it’s unlikely readers will want to follow you far through the jungle of your narrative.

Example. I recently reread Philip Caputo’s brilliant 1977 Vietnam War memoir, A Rumor of War. There is clear, obvious tension in this book from the beginning, of course: They’re preparing to go from peacetime America to war-torn Vietnam. (Actually, he was one of the first Marine platoons to actually fight in Vietnam; he went there in early 1965, when we were supposedly still “aiding” the ARVN (South Vietnamese). That strategy soon changed.) So, in this case, there’s almost a sort of built in sense of impending tension.

But he also finds many other methods for demonstrating tension: The tension between the narrator’s sense of morality and what he is commanded to do in war; the tension between humanizing the enemy (the Viet Cong) and seeing them as brute savages; the tension between following orders without question and internally questioning why it was they were there, fighting a horrific guerilla war in a faraway country in Southeast Asia. There are many more forms of tension in Caputo’s book. Another one I really enjoyed is his use of tension between himself (and the other soldiers) and the environment; the jungle. He describes the jungle as “malevolent,” as if it were trying to crush them into powder; the brutal, bashing heat as a terrible, lecherous demon, intent on murdering them; the sun as a horrid thing, wanting nothing more than their demise.

Think about real life: the uncle who drives you nuts, the prize you yearn for but never get, the partner you leave. Inject this tension into your story. You’ll be grateful you did.

The point here is that, in any way possible, create real tension between your narrator and either external and/or internal forces and I can almost guarantee—again, as long as you have the other essentials of story: well-written prose sentences; well-rounded, believable characters; character and story arc (transformation); a hero’s journey; point of no return; strong setting; etc.—that readers will most likely want to keep reading, turning the page again and again and again. Have a strong, well-written story or strong characters and setting, etc., with NO tension? You’re unlikely to get very far with readers.

Think about real life: the uncle who drives you nuts; the parent who presses that annoying internal button every time you see them; that prize or award you yearn for but never get; the self love you can’t quite seem to ever grasp; the love from Dad you can’t ever quite seem to get, at least not in the way you desire; the job you want but are somehow blocked from; the need to be two conflicting people somehow, one at work, one at home with your partner; the need for external validation and never getting it; the action of leaving something (a job, a boyfriend) and then feeling like you can’t live without them, but knowing you must, etc. The list could go on and on and on. The point is: Create that character, that story framework/foundation, and then inject tension into it. You’ll be grateful you did.

Hurdles are one thing—obvious preventatives that get in your main character’s way—but some tension can be more subtle and interior. Either way, learn to traverse the lush landscape of a character’s inner and outer world, using tension, by questioning your own life and experience: What has led to your own true tension? Answer that and you’ve got a start. From there keep digging.

Play with this. If your novel/memoir lacks tension, go through your manuscript and find out where you can add it in. It is key.

Michael Mohr is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer, former literary agent’s assistant, and freelance book editor. He has dozens of published stories in various literary journals and magazines and has written eight novels. Michael is also a member of the EFA (Editorial Freelancer’s Association). Learn more and connect with him on his website.

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