Major Fiction Writing Mistakes: Tensionlessness

Your audience wants to see bad stuff happen. Reading about a character going through the motions of her day is boring. We crave tension and we want it in every single scene of your book.

A major temptation is showing your protagonist living in Happy World Land before dropping her on the bullet train to heck.

 Some writers believe showing a character in happy moments will endear her to the reader.

The horrible truth of the human condition is that even the happiest people are dissatisfied with aspects of their lives. Unbridled happiness isn’t reality and, therefore, doesn’t resonate.

Tension does.

But how do you have tension even before the first major crisis of your book?

 Glad you asked. Here are some ways to do just that:


  • Start with the major crisis on page one.   Is your pre-crisis world really necessary? Really? If the answer is no, then skip it. Your crisis itself can hit readers at a gut level and instantly draw them into the story.
  • Begin with minor tensions. Put your character in line at the DMV. Have her bicker with a family member. Give her the flu.
  • Showcase character flaws your protagonist is unaware of. Maybe your protagonist lives alone and is content to celebrate his birthday by ordering a pizza for himself. Screenwriter Blake Snyder would call this “stasis equals death”. The reader will feel the tension even if your character doesn’t.  That lonely guy has to get out of his house and live his life. If he doesn’t do something, he’s lost.
  • Overemphasize the happiness. If your character is happily married with 2.3 kids, owns a ranch-style house in the suburbs, and just got a new promotion at her job, then you are giving readers the cue that her world is about to come crashing down. The tension comes from the reader realizing some unknown horror is a few pages away while the character is blissfully unaware.

Tension should rise throughout your story.

Don’t let up. Your character may reflect on the obstacle she just overcame, but then the next obstacle should be bigger and more tension-filled than the last.

Tension should even be in the denouement of your story.

By definition, a denouement means the loosening of tension, but there’s still tension. Oh, yes, there is. It’s the tension of looking backward and forward at the same time.

If you’ve ever been through a traumatic experience, you might look back with sadness, remorse, or gratefulness that you made it through the ordeal.

You also look forward with a changed perspective. Maybe you’re more hopeful, suspicious, confident, or sober than you were before.

Even in the thriller or mystery series, this is true. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher reasserts his vagabond lifestyle after being entangled in the latest political plot. The hard-boiled detective becomes more jaded after uncovering yet another avenue of human depravity.

Tension drives story.

 Stop thinking of stories as plot-driven or character-driven. Stories are propelled forward by tension.

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