Your Stories Will Suck (Hard) if You Don’t Utilize Tension
Tension keeps your readers flipping pages and engaged in your essays. Here’s how to effectively use it.
I found the frogs in a puddle after a thunderstorm. The Earth still wet, insects and amphibians crawled out of holes to soak in the humid sun. I tottered along the sidewalk, grasping my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Party Wagon where I stored the small frogs I’d discovered. Settling next to my neighbor’s outdoor air conditioning unit, I peeked over the top to stare at the internal fan blades purring in a rhythmic cycle. Rust had eaten away a few slats, creating a small opening. Looking into the hole, it reminded me of the blender my mother used at home. I was smart enough to know if I put my hand through the slats, fingers would disappear like a tomato on the pureé setting.
The air conditioning unit was one of the few dry places among the puddles gathered on the sidewalk and concrete. Sitting down, I removed the frogs from inside the Party Wagon and played. I owned none of the actual Ninja Turtle figurines, so the frogs would have to make due.
In the animated series, the Turtles’s Party Wagon had a removable roof they would use as a springboard to launch the four brothers into the air. Following the cartoon depiction, the Party Wagon also had a roof I could flip open. The idea was to launch the frogs from the Party Wagon, reenacting their battles with the Turtles’s nemesis—the FootClan. The small frog I placed on top hopped off several times, but eventually tired of the tiny human scooping him up and saying, “Stay put. It’s Turtle Time.” Raising my hand high, I came down with a quick speed that connected with the end of the roof which spring-boarded the frog high in air. I smiled in awe as the frog rose high enough that I had to shield my eyes from the sun. Then gravity kicked in and the poor creature fell at a rapid rate toward the concrete.
Let’s pause here. Albeit, I’m sure that’s the last thing you really want. Instead, you likely have questions. Does the frog die? Does it land right side up and hop off? What’s up with you telling me about the rusted fan vents in the air conditioning unit?
Currently, there’s no clarity or resolution and I leave you hanging with elements of foreshadowing. Instead, you’re left wondering, “what happens next?” In the literary world, we call this tension. Tension is what keeps your readers engaged and turning pages at breakneck speeds. It’s what holds their attention and makes a story engaging as opposed to merely recounting information.
I love tension as a literary art form because it evokes emotional responses. One of my favorite authors who does this masterfully is Pierce Brown. Brown wrote the sci-fi epic Red Rising, which is a dystopian space odyssey that became a New York Times Bestseller. Each time a novel dropped, my wife and I blocked off our evenings to read, knowing full well we wouldn’t be able to set his book down because of the amount of tension rank throughout the pages.
In fact, there was one particular moment I threw the book across the room because the ending of the second book was a total cliffhanger. I realized I’d have to wait a few years to discover just what the hell happened. That’s tension at play. Other times, I swore I was going to go to bed, only to keep reading until 2am because I couldn’t believe what was happening and needed resolution. That’s tension being applied.
I recently spoke with a fellow writer who sent along an article who applied techniques from our most recent articles here at The Write Life, but stated his read time was abysmally low. When I read his article, I spotted the problem immediately—a clear lack of tension. He had recounted the events, and the writing wasn’t bad, but there was no reason to keep reading because he’d already resolved the story within the first two paragraphs. I told him that the best way to apply tension is to remember this simple technique: withhold key information and details to keep the reader guessing and seeking resolution. While clarity is king in storytelling, if you give all the answers up front, you lose your audience.
Consider George RR Martin’s epic reveal in the miniseries Game of Thrones when you discover the character “Hodor” actually means “Hold the door.” That moment blew everyone’s mind (and if you haven’t seen Game of Thrones, I apologize for the spoiler). It wasn’t just long form storytelling but tension used as an art form by withholding a vital piece of information.
Imagine, however, if we discovered early on about Hodor really trying to say “Hold the door.” It would have ruined the story, and despite him being a minor character, everyone still wondered what had happened to Hodor and how he ended up a simpleton. An early reveal would have also destroyed the overall plot.
But perhaps you’re not a fiction writer and wondering how this can be applied?
Most self-help authors, op-eds, or essays carry differing beliefs than their audience. Many times, those writers are working to address deeply held convictions or beliefs in order for a reader to consider changing a standpoint or—at the very least—get them to agree with their synopsis. If you’re a writer in that vein, this is why it’s especially vital to address tension from all ends, especially beliefs that differ from your own. A question I always ask when writing my personal op-eds is “What’s the resistance and why wouldn’t I want to believe/accept this?” That question alone will help you get into a potential reader’s head.
The more tension you use, the better chance they keep reading. Which brings us full circle to the tension at hand and probably why many of you might have continued reading: What the hell happened to the frog?
Now for the resolution (and further tension).
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When I launched the frog in the air, it came hurtling toward the earth with a splat. I couldn’t tell if I killed the frog, but he wasn’t moving as I poked, so begged him to get up. Then I rolled the green amphibian onto his back while his legs spread wide. Panic set in and I scooped up the frog to blow on him, much like God trying to breathe life into Adam. But there was no reaction.
In the biblical narrative of Cain killing Abel, Cain tries to disguise the murder of his younger brother. Cain’s mindset became clear as I continued to blow on the frog—hide your sin. I stood and walked to the air conditioning unit, still pumping out its low whirl of hot air. I saw the frog would fit in the rusted hole; all I need do was drop the body into the spinning blades. I hesitated, though, now experiencing a tightness in my chest grow and spread. What I was doing was wrong. No one had ever explained why this was wrong, as I was far too young to understand, but I knew something I’d done was evil.
The tightness spread, but didn’t stop me. Instead, I turned my hand over and watched the frog explode into a pink mist. The cracks in the dam broke. Water ravaged the landscape, and I burst into tears. Then I ran home, tears blotting my vision. That was the first time I experienced death—by accidentally killing an innocent animal and trying to hide the evil I’d unknowingly committed as a young child.
To this day, there’s still a tightness that forms when I think about that moment and how much it affected me. Perhaps it’s the same for you. Many kids have a distinct memory of when they killed a bug, bird, or snake. We feel it spread throughout our bones and remember how it made us feel.
Is it horrible? Yes. Do you still feel guilt? Probably.
But instead of wallowing, use those experiences for good to tell stories that evoke emotions and drive the tension in your stories.
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