Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Learn to Build Tension in Your Novel

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Conflict and tension are very different. Conflict is a problem between two ‘things’—two people, two armies, two countries, a person and a fish—or even an argument between two points of view in a person’s head. Tension, on the other hand, raises questions in our stories and is there all the time. We need both.

Every story is a mystery/suspense story—at least to some degree or another. Think about it. The reader has to wait to uncover whatever it is the writer wants to tell. We may have a good idea of what’s going to happen but, ultimately, the reader won’t read the story if we don’t worry about how it’s going to work out.

So, the author’s ‘job’ is to continually create places in the story where the reader becomes anxious to see what’s going to happen next. Readers want to wonder and be surprised—and shocked—and to demand to see more. If you’re of ‘a certain age’ you might remember the serials movie theaters used on Saturday mornings. They’d have ‘Cowboy Bob’ or ‘Dick Tracy’ in a short segment where the audience is left hanging at the end, panting for more. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote several of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries in serial form in a magazine published in the U.K. back in the 1880’s and ‘90’s. His audience was so involved with the stories that they stood in line waiting for the release of the next issue. 
  • That’s not conflict it’s the building of expectations. Tension. 
  • Tension is absolutely necessary
  • Tension comes from both inside and outside your protagonist:
  • Internal: what drives him or her
  • External: what happens to him or her
  • There are also two basic levels of tension:
  • Global: as in the actual set-up of your story
  • Scene by scene: as in what happens in each scene 
  • Tension is not about car wrecks and sword fights. It’s about things that happen to your characters and how they react to them. 
  • Tension is not boring!

That being said, it doesn’t mean that you have something crazy going on every minute. Tension is a rising and falling proposition – you want it to ebb and flow. Think about a siren. If it’s always at exactly the same pitch and the same volume, you’d eventually tune it out. But instead, a police siren rises and falls, which brings more attention to it. 

Same with tension in a story. 

Conflict and tension usually walk hand in hand and need to be set up together. Conflict is usually situational and tension is usually how conflict plays out. 

An example? 

Joe goes to the store to buy milk for the baby. 

He walks to the refrigerated section of the store, opens the glass door, picks up a carton of whole milk and strolls back to the register. 

He pulls his wallet from his pocket, pays the lady and goes home.

The baby stops crying and everybody is happy.

Interesting? I think not!

Let’s put some real problems in.

Joe’s wife meets him at the door. 

They’re out of milk. 

He can hear the baby crying frantically in the background. He knows she has to eat but he didn’t find work today. And, when he panhandled a guy on the sidewalk, the man called the police from his cell phone. 

Joe looks over his shoulder, wondering if the cops will follow him home. 

He HAS to get milk but his pockets are empty. And he’s hungry too.

He makes a choice, one he’s contemplated more than once – to rob the convenience store on the corner. 

He pushes past his wife and goes to the dresser drawer where his father’s gun is stored. 

He sits on the side of the bed for a minute, turning the gun over and over in his hands, his wife begging him not to go.

He stands up and walks out of the house.

The conflict is in the setup. The tension will be in how he handles it. 

This isn’t a fully-fleshed out story in any sense of the word but it has lots of tension. It also doesn’t tell us what happens next but look at all the questions it raises:
Will he rob the store?
Will he get away with it?
Will he get caught by the police before he can get to the store?
Will he…

Whatever he chooses—one of these or one of a dozen, even better ones—will set up the next episode of conflict. And that one will set up the next one. Until, finally, a big explosive confrontation between your protagonist and his nemesis—whether internal or external—leads us to a satisfying ending.

Tension. Conflict. Problems. 


How do you raise the stakes in your story? Do you have plenty of tension?


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Stories with tension make the readers turn the pages.
    Excellent teaching, Sally.

  2. You have given excellent instruction in what I need for my next WIP. I have an idea for a great moment of conflict, but have been unsure how to build around it. Thanks!

  3. Sally, I love your posts. Always super-instructions! Thanks for sharing your gift of fiction writing!

  4. Thanks for the distinction AND examples. And thanks for sharing your teaching gifts.
    Jay Wright; Anderson, SC