Top 10 Tips to Increase Tension in Your Fiction Story
by Samantha Stone

Keeping tension in your story is pivotal to forwarding the plot. While we like stability in real life, reading complacency is boring. Stir up your plot with a few jolts of sudden conflict or pressures to keep the story on its toes and readers riveted.

This doesn't mean creating contrived, obvious moments of small ripples that your hero easily overrides; make the tense moments pop up and unsettle the smooth sailing.

Depending on your genre and protagonist, use the following top 10 tips to up the ante and spark the fizzle in your plot.

1. Conflicting Goals

Give your hero someone to compete with, or make the hero at odds with themselves over a goal. Maybe both good and bad roads for the hero look equally attractive, giving rise to internal conflict. Sibling rivalry also works well here.

2. Time Limits and the Ticking Clock

If you haven't introduced a time limit early on in your story, start a ticking clock midway through. Putting a time limit or deadline on your protagonist automatically gives a set amount of time for the story to transpire, for the goal to be reached.

3. Taking Away Something Vital

Make your protagonist uncomfortable by taking away something advantageous. You don't have to cut off an arm or leg, but lessen their arsenal of pluses. This can be a map, shoes, a weapon, a power, a credit card, a friend or guide.

4. Make Dangers and Threats Real

Raise the bar on perceived threats and dangers by sending a warning shot close to your protagonist's comforts zones. You don't have to get a bloody finger in the ransom note to know the kidnappers are serious in your woman-in-danger story, but there could be a lock of her hair. Make the antagonist's threat real.

5. Raising the Stakes

Compound your protagonist's problems. Maybe the hero's quest is handicapped by taking on a slow traveling companion, or your knight gets news of an enemy horde nearing the object he wishes to rescue. Bad news can kindle and inflame lagging passions.

6. Finding a Traitor

You can heighten tension in some genres by introducing a traitor or hidden rival character among your protagonist's companions. This can be someone exposing secrets or even leading a mutiny. This not only leaves open your hero's progress, but also damages morale and makes everyone suspect.

7. The Opposition Moves Faster

If complacency has set in and your characters are plodding along your storyline and hitting every plot-point on mark, shake them up. Give them something to worry about. Maybe the gunslinger discovers the villainous guy in the black hat is already at the widow's ranch, or maybe a treasure hunter realizes the treasure has been gotten by a rival and now it's time for a little recovery action.

8. Threat of the Unknown

Threats can smack your protagonist at any time during the storyline, but you as the writer know when they're coming – the reader and characters don't. Use this to keep the protagonist alert. While your character can count the bullets his enemy has fired at him in a shootout, he doesn't necessarily know how many are still available – that depends on the gun's make and capacity and maybe there is a back-up weapon. Use the unknown to keep tension alive, the adrenalin flowing, and the threat of what's next up close.

9. Make it Personal

Keeping the danger or problem close to the protagonist will keep him interested in solving the problem. Put the murderer in his neighborhood, make the stolen car the thief's getaway car, or the face on the wanted poster a relative. Bring home the emotional impact and let your protagonist live with it.

10. Revelations

Drop a bombshell. Use new and sudden information to light a fire under your plot. Put something immediately at stake that's been unfolding slowly; perhaps a dying man's will shows he has other heirs or a document shows the eldest heir is illegitimate. This must matter to have impact.

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