Tag Archives: writing device

Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 18: Tension

Welcome back! Over the next many months we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison‘s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read all the segments by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on the drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month eighteen:


“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 18: Tension

My editor recently read the first 20,000 words of a novel I’m writing called BONE FIRE. BONE FIRE is set circa 6000 B.C. in Eastern Europe near the Danube River’s famed “Iron Gates,” and 20,000 words comprise approximately 1/5 of the novel. To my delight, she liked what I’ve written so far, and, even better, she also designated where I should ramp up the tension. Advice like that is absolutely golden to a novelist, because tension is what grabs readers and pulls them into the story.

IMG_0444 As a novelist, my goal is to entice readers into my story and keep them there. Achieving that depends on a number of factors, but let’s assume that my reader loves my chosen genre, that she wants to escape into a novel, and she has time away from distractions and life’s mundane chores. If that is the case, then the pulling-in and the keeping-there depends mainly on my storytelling skills. Yikes! That’s a little scary, but not quite so scary if I remind myself that I can use a relatively simple writing device to help make my story more captivating.

And that writing device is…?

Tension! (Give yourself a gold star if you already knew because you read the title of this post.)

All right, I can hear you say, “Aw come on, Sue. Tension is NOT simple.”

Well, maybe not simple, and maybe not even easy, but definitely a skill that almost any writer can learn. I like to visualize tension as a ladder my readers ascend. Step by step they climb toward the high point or climax of the novel.

Through the years, I’ve found a variety of ways to tighten the tension, lift my story, and entice my readers to take that next step up.

1. Internal conflict. (See Writing the Third Dimension, Part 16: “Conflicted.”)

2. External conflict. (See Writing the Third Dimension, Part 17: “Curses Foiled Again.”)

3. Small mysteries. (Why is the main character afraid of cats? Who is that man watching from the shadows?)

4. Large mysteries. (Who killed John Doe?)

5. The use of short, quick paragraphs or sentences. (These will make the reader read more quickly and up-pace the tempo in a subtle way.)

6. Unexpected emotional responses from the characters. (When John gives Mary the new car, she becomes angry. The reader was expecting her to celebrate.)

7. Confrontation between characters through dialogue or physical action.

8. An unexpected turn or detour in the main plot line.

9. A teaser at the end of a chapter that makes the reader want to continue to the next chapter. (I’ll discuss how to write teasers in my August post.)

10. A poor decision made by one of the characters.

11. An undercurrent of foreshadowing about what may happen next. (Subtle is the by-word here.)

12. Heartache moments.

13. Moments of small victory when your point-of-view character conquers the odds to succeed.

14. A change in the rhythm of your words. (I’m referring here to actual word choices. If your chosen “voice” for the novel is flowery, you might choose to write a short section in very succinct and harsh-sounding words. Or vice versa. Let your ears be the judge of how well this works. Read your rhythm changes out loud to check their effectiveness.)

15. A first kiss or any romantic meeting.

16. Rescue and the need for rescue.

17. Pain. Physical, mental, emotional. (Be sure you present this as a “showing” event. You shouldn’t tell your reader, “Joe was in agony.”  Show the reader that Joe is suffering through his words, actions, and angst.)

18. Cutting unnecessary wordiness. (Especially awkward words like wordiness!)

How do you ramp up the tension in your novels or stories? Share with us!

Strength to your pen!


*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy, and a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you to come back August 28, 2014, for part 19.