Once you’re in the thick of your story, you’ll want to start thinking about places where you can raise the stakes. Raising the stakes is probably one of the most significant aspects of your story because it gives the reader something to care about. It puts them on edge and makes them want to keep turning the page. What is at stake if x doesn’t happen? A character’s death? A bleak, miserable future? A broken heart or a lost friendship?
Your stakes should be appropriate for both your audience and genre. For instance, the stakes are going to be much higher and probably more complex in an epic fantasy than they are in a contemporary romance, which is what your audience expects. In a story with dragons, there is a possibility of the world being set aflame. In a middle school drama, your character’s biggest obstacle could be making the all-state team or asking their crush out.
Both situations require tension.
Here are some tips for creating tension in a scene.
Without tension, there is no romance in a story. You can establish tension through dialogue, internal thoughts, interactions, or plot. One way to do this is to show how your character acts differently around someone they like. Do they fidget or try to talk a certain way to impress them? Do they show an interest in their hobbies or activities at school? Showing this shift in a character in different aspects of their life can create a unique dynamic that readers will want to follow.
You can also show chemistry between your characters to intensify the emotional element. Do they banter and seem to feel comfortable around each other? Do they offer shy smiles or lingering stares?
Make every scene immediate. It’s important to keep your story moving so that your readers stay engaged with your characters. Remember that backstory tends to slow down the pace in a story, so when it comes to mysteries, try to reveal pivotal information in alternating scenes of extremity. In other words, follow up the discovery of a body with new clues about the suspect, then introduce another conflict or hook to keep your reader interested. Understanding how to pace your story is essential for a successful mystery story.
Keep telling your character “no.” Stop them from reaching their objectives. To add in emotional intensity, center your conflict around your character’s goals and backstory. Try not to rely solely on incidents or events that could happen to anyone — make it personal for your character.
For instance, a monster attack is terrifying for anyone. But to add emotional intensity, perhaps the monster is attacking the protagonist for a specific reason — because the monster hates how your character behaves or their beliefs to get ahead in life — and now the monster is stopping them from reaching their goals. Events that are emotionally important to your character carry scenes better than random incidents.
You can go a lot of routes when it comes to tension in contemporary stories. These stories are realistic, modern, and can happen in real settings to real people. There are plenty of large-scale issues in society that create tension, as well as smaller problems that impact your character on a deeper, more intimate level.
An easy way to tighten up your writing is to pay attention to word choice. Consider the following example:
“Get out!” Marie shouted angrily.
“Get out!” Marie picked up a vase and threw it across the room.
This is an example of “showing vs. telling,” and it’s a great way to create tension and conflict within a scene without boring your readers.
Above all, remember that tension is about creating doubt in your reader — the outcome should be questionable. Withhold the happy ending from your character in order to keep the reader guessing and therefore engaged with your story.
is an avid reader and passionate writer from Colorado. She studied creative writing and journalism at the University of Denver and graduated in 2021. She has worked with the Denver Quarterly literary journal, written for the DU Clarion, and currently works with Spring Cedars Publishing.