Like pacing, tension in a short story or novel is what compels readers to turn the pages.
Pacing is a structural and line-level element of the writing process, while tension centers on conflict.
Tension, according to the dictionary, is the act of stretching something tight, or the condition of being stretched or taut.
A story that is taut does not have extraneous words, characters, dialogue and plot elements. Every aspect of the story is directed toward the climax, the peak or most intense part of the telling. The drive toward that climax is the point-of-view or main character’s unmet goal or need, moving the story forward.
Stories with a good level of tension make the reader want to find out what will happen next and next and so on. Will the romantic girl get her guy, despite all the obstacles to their love, or will the (fill-in-the-blank) solve, find, resolve or get something?
The main character faces external and internal opposition through the story’s beginning, middle and end in the story’s movement. External opposition comes from life events or the other characters blocking the main character from getting the main want. Internal opposition comes from the character’s negative thoughts, insecurity, lack of focus or other emotional state.
The opposition is the result of both internal conflicts, which are about characters, and external conflicts, which are about plot.
As the story progresses, the tension escalates. A story doesn’t advance by events happening one after the next, but by this escalation. The tension, however, should not follow a constant upward line where things get more and more intense.
Instead, the tension needs to vary, as well as the pace, to add interest and intrigue to the unfolding of the story. Changing the pace—the tempo or rate of the story’s progression—shows the different moods and action in the story.
A slow pace includes narration, description and digression, while a faster pace uses action and short, clipped dialogue, creating a lot of white space on the page. A slow pace
emphasizes important moments in the story; a quick pace hurries it along.
Tension is what keeps the story tight through those slow and fast movements.