THE END OF TENSION TALKS! How to Increase the Tension in Your Story

Best writing coaches for novels Carrie Jones

In my earlier posts these past couple of weeks, both Steve Wedel and Mark Del Franco had some interesting things to say about point-of-view and tension.

So, in this final blog, I’m going to talk about that a tiny bit more and then give some quick hints about creating suspenseful stories.

Because like Jeff Deaver said it’s our responsibilities as writers to: Give my readers the most exciting roller coaster ride of a suspense story I can possibly think of.

Although, to be fair I agree with Fawn Brodie’s sentence: Show me a character whose life arouses my curiosity, and my flesh begins crawling with suspense.

Character is really intertwined with point-of-view.

There are two main point of views I’m talking about here, first person and third person.

Every day you live in your own point-of-view. Every day you are the main character of your story living out the suspense of your life. That’s the first person.

If you expand beyond yourself, use empathy and imagination to jump back into other people’s lives as well, creating a web that connects both, that’s more third person.

Or, you might end up in this book turned movie, I’m not sure:

Anyway, there are special problems with both point of views.

Issues with I Stories:

1.      You know the narrator is probably not going to die, so there isn’t that mortal danger worry.

2.      In first-person past tense it’s hard to keep it fresh, because the I of the story already knows what’s going to happen.

Good Things About I Stories:

1.      You can use the ‘peril detector.’

2.      The narrator’s fear moves the scene forward, increasing tension.

Issues with Third-Person Stories:

1.      Sometimes it’s harder to get you to care about the character. There. Sorry. I said it. Haters get at it.

2.      Sometimes, if you don’t do it well, switching around can actually ruin the tension and frustrate the reader.

Good Things about Third-Person Stories:

1.      You can set up what’s going to happen, the crisis, the conflict, the scary by switching back and forth between the good guy and bad guy.

2.      It’s very freeing.

I asked Editor Andrew Karre (currently executive editor at Dutton about first vs. third person.

Andrew said, “I think suspense is often important, but adding it to a manuscript tends to involve removing stuff and rearranging stuff. I think a clear, sequential, third-person story is rarely maximally suspenseful, so if suspense is in order, I think a meandering, unreliable first person is the way to go.”

Okay. Here are some take-away tips about adding suspense to your story.

They are summarized from an article by Vivian Gilbert Zabel, which is sourced below.

1. Make the main character someone you like but someone who can screw up. The reader has to care. If the reader doesn’t care about the character, the reader closes the book. If the character is perfect and can’t screw up? Then there’s no tension.

2. Make the plot a question and then “Make a list of all the possible reasons why the answer could be “no.” Those “no” answers become the focus of problems and obstacles – suspense,” Zabel says.

3. Make the hero have a really good reason for what she wants. Make her need.

4. Do that for the bad guy, too.  Stories like Harry Potter wouldn’t be nearly so fun if there wasn’t the possibility that the evil wizard Voldemort might kick everyone’s butts.

5. Make things harder and harder for the hero. Make it get worse.

6.  Pick the right POV for you and your story.

7.  Try to make the story urgent. Imagine a bomb ticking down before the explosion. Make the story a race against that.

And there you go! I hope all these blog posts on tension help you out a bit instead of making you more tense.


Luce, Carol. “Writing Suspense That’ll “Kill” Your Readers.” The Complete Book of Novel Writing. Ed 2002. Med Leder and Jack Heffrom. Cincinatti: Writers’ Digest Books, 2002.

Reynolds, William. “Keeping Them In Suspense.” The Complete Book of Novel Writing. Ed 2002. Med Leder and Jack Heffrom. Cincinatti: Writers’ Digest Books, 2002.

Article Source: 

Personal Interviews with Mark Del Franco, Andrew Karre, and Steven Wedel, Sept. 2008.

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I am the NYT and internationally-bestselling author of children's books, which include the NEED series, FLYING series, TIME STOPPERS series, DEAR BULLY and other books. I like hedgehogs and puppies and warm places. I have none of these things in my life.

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