Shelley Widhalm

More Tension (in Novels)

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on July 8, 2012 at 11:00 am

As a yet-to-be published novelist, tension seems to be the banal of my existence.

I understand what the concept means when I think of a taut rubber band, compared with that element of writing that keeps readers turning the pages. But when it comes to applying the concept to writing, I struggle with the required maintenance.

Though I already addressed tension last month in my blog challenge to write about 52 writing topics in 52 weeks, “52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty,” I now realize that I have to tweak my understanding.

A writer friend of mine who has read the first few chapters of my novel, “Dropping Colors,” wrote in her comments, “Think about tension all the time: maintain micro-tension throughout the story, in conversations, within Kate’s head. You always need conflict to drive the story forward.”

Kate Letts is my protagonist, or point-of-view character, who loses everything she owns in an apartment fire and tries to replace her lost things only to find something better.

My writer friend loaned me her copy of “The Fire in Fiction: passion, purpose and techniques to make your novel great,” by Donald Maass, published in 2009.

In chapter 8, “Tension All the Time,” Maass states that conflict is story, but that one large, overriding conflict is not all that drives the story. Conflict also needs to be present in smaller ways through micro-tension, or the tension within each moment of the story’s unfolding that keeps readers curious about what happens next.

Tension is not a function of plot, Maass said. In dialogue, it comes through the emotional friction between the characters speaking; in action, from inside the point-of-view character experiencing it; and in exposition, that character’s conflicting emotions.

As I understand what Maass is saying, tension boils down to feelings and emotions in each moment of the story. And as stated in my earlier blog on the same subject, tension is the result of character conflict: internal conflicts are about characters, while external conflicts are about plot.

Tension is what turns cardboard or cliché characters into sentient beings that experience the world through the filter of their own emotions, experiences and worldviews.

As soon as you put the point-of-view characters in a setting, what makes the environment become real? It’s not just the details, but how the character experiences them. This character feels his or her world, just as we all do.

See Zoey the cute dachshund’s blog at

  1. Interesting ‘tweak’ of a subject vitally important to good writing. As usual, i now have a better understanding. Thx!

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