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f Tension to Include in Every Story You Write

The four types of dramatic tension and how to employ them

Photo by Josh Wilburne on Unsplash

This week, I was asked a question by email list subscriber Sowmya on types of tension to include in a story. I was immediately inspired to write my first post on tension building, because it is such a valuable tool to writers!

What is Tension Building?

Tension building is a phrase used in creative writing to talk about the conflict that arises for the main characters. To build tension in a story is to give your readers something to be afraid for. Not afraid of, but afraid for.

So what do I mean by this? Well, to be afraid of something is to be scared that it could harm you in someway. But being afraid for something is to be afraid that it might get harmed.

When writing plot, you want your readers to be worried that something could happen to get in the way of what the main character wants. Your character wants a happily ever after? The tension in the story might be the dragon guarding the castle, or the coma the princess may never wake from.

Before we dive into how tension can be built, let’s look at tension in popular works of literature.

Types of Tension in Literature

Most of us are familiar with the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, so let’s take a look at the types of tension there.

From the beginning, tension is built between characters because we are immediately shown two families who despise each other, but of course Romeo falls in love with Juliet sight on scene. So now we are afraid for Romeo. How can he love a Capulet? What will his family say? Will he be outcasted? Is their love going to survive?

A lot of questions come up from the get go here. Tension will make your readers ask themselves questions about the outcome of a tension-filled situation.

At the end of the play, Juliet is unconscious, but Romeo thinks she’s dead. This use of dramatic irony here builds tension as well. We want to scream at Romeo not to kill himself because Juliet just isn’t dead. Again, we’re left wondering what the heck Romeo is going to do. We’re on our seat’s edge waiting to see if he actually kills himself. As soon as he does, our focus shifts to Juliet to see what she’ll do.

Vocabulary: Dramatic Irony: When the reader knows the truth, but the characters do not.

Types of Tension

Now let’s talk about different types of tension, when to use them, and what they might look like.

You may have heard of the four types of dramatic tension:

  1. Relationships
  2. Task
  3. Surprise
  4. Mystery

So, let’s break each one down.

1. The Tension of Relationships

This is a tension we all feel in our everyday lives. It may be the most engaging one to read about as well, because it feels like gossip and drama that we experience everyday.

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The point of tension here is between two characters. Like in our Romeo and Juliet example, there is tension between families. The relationship between our two families is not good, to say the least. They are mortal enemies.

You might see this tension between protagonist and antagonist. We’re rooting for the protagonist to succeed, but the antagonist keeps getting in the way.

This tension is also common in love stories. Does the protagonist have a love interest? The “will they won’t they?” trope is a common source of tension in relationships.

Friends arguing, parents disciplining, passive aggression, silent treatments, these are all examples of tension in relationships.

So why use this tension at all?

Tension in relationships helps make characters feel like real people, which is of course the goal of writing characters. If your character moves through their story never getting into an argument, never butting heads or having a different opinion than someone else, it’s very unrealistic.

On any given day, we have tension with other people. Scrolling through social media and seeing a political post you disagree with brings up relationship tension. How long has it been since you last had an argument with someone? It’s a part of our daily lives, so it needs to be a part of your characters’ daily lives.

2. The Tension of the Task

This tension is one I’m feeling right now as I write this post. You probably feel this one everyday at work or school.

The tension of the task has to do with what your main character is trying to accomplish. It can be on a smaller or larger scale. Maybe in this chapter, they’re trying to figure out an answer to a problem, but the bigger goal of the story is to save the world.

If your character can easily achieve their goals, that’s great for them, but not for the reader. Nobody wants to read a story where everything plays out perfectly. Again, when was the last time you got what you wanted effortlessly?

Why would we bother with this tension?

To make a story realistic, your protagonist needs some roadblocks thrown in their way. What kind of obstacles stop them from saving the world? Maybe they thought a meteor was going to hit Earth, but turns out it’s actually an alien spaceship that now needs an army to fight off.

You can also have them struggle internally to complete something. Like I said, I’m feeling the tension of the task now, but not because of some unforeseen obstacles. I’m feeling it because it’s getting late, I worked a full day, and sometimes it’s hard to explain literary tactics. The tension I’m feeling right now is all internal.

You might have a character who suffers from depression or anxiety, so completing certain tasks are harder for them. Or maybe they’re just exhausted after a long day and their task requires more energy.

There are a lot of ways to stop your protagonist from completing their task, so get creative with it!

3. The Tension of Surprise

This type of tension is probably the most obvious kind. People who say they like surprises are only talking about gifts or vacations. Nobody really likes surprises.

Here, we have two different types of surprises. The reader can be surprised by a plot twist, or the protagonist can be surprised by new events as they unfold.

Do you remember a while back, like around 2012 probably, when people would shout “plot twist!” anytime they learned something new? So glad we as a society moved out of that phase. But, it also shows that really anything can be a plot twist.

Of course, some will carry more weight with them than others, but what I’m trying to say here is that tension doesn’t have to be a big dramatic change in the story.

Your surprise could range from mom not being home when she usually is, to a meteor actually being an alien spaceship.

So, why use this tension?

If you think about it, there really isn’t a day that goes by where we aren’t surprised by something. Today I was surprised when I accidentally deleted hours of work on my laptop. Some days I’m surprised by hearing about another Black man being killed by police officers.

Surprises happen in many different sizes, but they happen everyday.

So again, much like the other tensions, you have to include surprises in your stories to make them feel realistic. A story that plays out exactly as expected is not worth reading. Your readers don’t want to be able to predict everything that happens next, that’s no fun.

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4. The Tension of Mystery

This type of tension is also pretty common and easily understood.

The King of Horror, Stephen King, does a great job at letting the reader constantly think “What the heck is happening?”

This tension propels your reader forward in the story. The mystery is so enticing that they can’t not find out what happened. This can be achieved by building up with the other tensions to a cliffhanger, that then gets resolved later. You can have one overarching mystery that’s at play until the climax of the story. And you can have smaller mysteries that just keep popping up throughout the story. All of these versions of mystery will bring your reader in.

Why use mystery in a story?

Again, mystery happens everyday of our lives, and often on a smaller scale. “How did my pen disappear into my blankets?” is one that I often live over and over like it’s Groundhog’s Day.

An emotional mystery that could tie in with the tension of relationships is a “Why did they say that to me? Why did they treat me that way?” mystery.

Sometimes we get bigger, more unfortunate mysteries like “Why did they have to die so young?”

There are also bigger mysteries like “Who killed this man?” or “How did this building burn down?”

Mystery happens all the time, so to not include it in a story is to render your story unrealistic.

Recapping the Types of Tension

To summarize, tension happens all around us everyday. To leave it out of a story is to make a boring, unrealistic story that your readers will not be able to latch onto.

You can create tension between characters, through goals, through surprises, and with mysteries.

Tension happens on a scale. Some tension is small and almost unnoticeable. Other manifestations of tension are so large they take hundreds of pages to dissolve.

No matter the story you write, it’s important to include tension throughout your story to keep your reader moving forward.

Michelle Renee Miller recently launched her first writing course. It’s free, it’s a quick 20 minutes, and it’ll jump start your fiction writing career. Sign up here 🙂

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Frequently Asked Questions About in a play what is the source of tension

If you have questions that need to be answered about the topic in a play what is the source of tension, then this section may help you solve it.

What gives a play its tension?

Dramatic tension is created when a character’s ability to achieve their goal is in doubt. Its four main components are a clear goal, opposition, stakes, and urgency.

What component of dramatization causes tension?

Contrasting characters, dramatic action, ideas, attitudes, values, emotions, and desires come into conflict to create a problem that must be resolved (or left unresolved) through drama. This creates dramatic tension, which drives the drama and keeps an audience interested.

Acting tension is what?

A character with very little physical tension will appear relaxed and calm, whereas an uptight character might show tension through high shoulders and minimal movement. Physical tension is how tight or relaxed a performer’s muscles are.

What kinds of tension can you find in a drama?

You may be familiar with the four categories of dramatic tension:

  • Relationships.
  • Task.
  • Surprise.
  • Mystery.

How does a scene become tense?

With this technique, you can give the viewers knowledge that the protagonist doesn’t have, which is a quick way to ratchet up the tension and give the audience a sense of loss of control. This is one of the traditional ways to build tension in a scene.

How does a story create tension?

As a result of a combination of anticipation, uncertainty, and emotional investment, narrative tension is the reader’s desire to find out what happens next. These elements can be combined in countless ways to produce countless flavors of narrative tension.

What does tension look like?

You can refer to a force acting on an object as tension if one of the forces is being applied by a rope, cable, or chain. Ropes and cables can be used to exert forces because they are effective at transferring a force over a short distance (like the rope length).

Which six sources of tension are there?

If they are not properly managed, the six main areas of demands, control, support, relationships, role, and change can result in work-related stress.

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