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Tension: Desire and Obstacles

Nothing keeps a story going like tension.  I'm thinking of tension as desire balanced by obstacles, as forward movement into dark and twisty corridors where we're not sure where we'll end up.  It's the electricity between two people who want to kiss but are afraid to, or forbidden to.  It's the push-pull between haves and have-nots.  It's the competition between rivals for the same prize.  It's a quest: for answers, or love, or revenge, or forgiveness, or vindication, or anything worth seeking.

The obstacles can't be so huge that they stop all forward movement and cut off all possibilities.  Also, it's difficult to sustain constant tension, and there's something to be said for including scenes of fulfillment--where the characters reach a goal, even an intermediate goal--and "breather" scenes, where the reader can reflect on and savor what has just happened.  In that case, the story may move forward like a staircase rather than a smooth upward slope.  But if a story seems flat and lifeless, too calm for too long, we can ask ourselves: What do the characters want, and what stands in their way?  If the answer is "nothing," perhaps tension is needed.

Comments

I stopped reading a book recently (for only the second time, ever), because I was over 130 pages in, and there was still no tension. Great post, and very true words.
Like most things, it's easier said than done!
"In that case, the story may move forward like a staircase" - great analogy. I'm partial to a spiral staircase.
Oooh, a spiral staircase! Now that would be really cool.
Great post.
Thank you!
This post is particularly timely for me because I just had a conference critique that said I needed to fix my plotting and pacing. So, I've been thinking a lot about how to go about it. Not sure if my current story is workable or if I should just start fresh.
Those are often difficult elements for me, too. I do a lot of rewrites, because I seldom get those things right early on.
Thanks for the post and quite serendipitous for me in that an editor told me some of the love scenes in my novel are melodramatic. Perhaps more tension is needed instead of all out, "I Love you!" I'm quite the romantic though. Note to self- need to work on tension:):)
Suspense can be quite effective with romance!
I would say that tension is the feeling of being uncomfortable, sort of like a taut string, or an electron outside of its ground state.

Yes, "desire balanced by obstacles" is what makes it, but I wouldn't say that it defines tension. I do think it's a good way to think about creating tension, though.
I like the taut string--especially if it's fraying.

Tension

Well done, Ms. Hubbard. A cogent, incisive and succinct revelation.

Re: Tension

Why, thank you!