Tension is part curiosity, part unease, part dread or anticipation. It’s linked to every aspect of stories, found on every page, and creates a vivid fictional world that seethes with trouble and obstacles to overcome. Tension prickles readers’ nerves and makes them fret and worry.

Tension, along with suspense, jabs at the reader’s senses with haunting questions and shifting circumstances that must be unraveled.

“Tension is a crucial ingredient that compels readers to keep turning the pages.” – Jessica P. Morrell

Tension is a force field in fiction, or any type of storytelling, that is created on a word-by-word basis that is underlying the story in every scene. Tension is also used to create mood and tone. Mood and tone are important aspects of storytelling often not given their due.

You see, great fiction is designed to cause a reader’s emotions to jangle and his mood to go up and down with every turn of the page. Unlike real life where people usually avoid conflict and misery, in fiction, the best parts of the stories are where the characters are in the worst trouble. Readers love to suffer along with characters, because they’re removed from these miseries, perhaps because they’re escaping their own miseries while comfortable in their homes or airplane seats as characters battle doubts and demons in a fictional world. Tension sometimes  helps readers (and listeners) to experience catharsis.

Jessica advises writers to pay particular attention to the words they use to increase tension and impact. These are her tips on how and what to look for when you are wanting to write a page-turner and who would not want to do this?

• Recognize that you’re constantly making choices when you write. Know when you want your words to emphasize an aspect, resonate, slow down, or speed up your story.
Vary your word choices and respect ‘word territory’—that is, don’t repeat words and phrases, especially those in close proximity, especially with unusual words.
Vary sentence lengths because they can be numbing when repeated.
Write tight. Short sentences generally increase tension. Every word in every sentence needs a job. If it doesn’t have a job, fire it.
Use hard consonant sounds to increase tension. Examples are cowgirl, geek, gimme, trigger, castrate, succor, cackle.
Use sibilance or a hissing sound to disturb readers and suggest unpleasantness. Examples are: sinister, shyster, sizzle, simper, slice, buzz.
Insert punchy, muscular verbs whenever they serve your purpose: roil, blurt, thunder, sting, crash, grovel, conjure, hobble, jacked, leer, muzzle.

Most of the time dialogue should be zingy, taut, and to the point.

• Place the most emphatic words at the end of a sentence or paragraph: The door closed with a resounding click, confirming that I was trapped.

“All stories begin with word choice; and word choices will either doom
it or set your story apart.” – Jessica P. Morrell

Jessica’s  HANDY LIST OF 1,130 words to print out and use for your writing toolbox. 

Click here for Jessica’s List of 1,130 words that could add more tension to your story and boost your writing vocabulary.

Jessica Page Morrell

Jessica Page Morrell

Jessica Page Morrell is a top-tier developmental editor and a contributor to Writer’s Digest magazine, and she teaches Master Writing Craft Classes at the Chanticleer Authors Conference that is held annually along with teaching at Chanticleer writing workshops.

Jessica understands both sides of the editorial desk–as a highly-sought after content development editor and an author. Her work also appears in multiple anthologies and The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazines. She is known for explaining the hows and whys of what makes for excellent writing and for sharing very clear examples that examines the technical aspects of writing that emphases layering and subtext. Her books on writing craft are considered “a must have” for any serious writer’s toolkit. For links for her writing craft books, please click on her name above.

Chanticleer Reviews and OnWord Talks will interview Jessica for more of her writing tips and advice. Stay tuned! ~ Chanticleer