Tension: Two Easy Ways to Pack Tension in a Scene

Tension is a sensation in the body. Fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals are hardwired to be on the alert. Possums play possum. An elk herd circles the calves. Octopi retreat into grottoes. Gorillas pound their chests. And, as for humans, what signs of danger raise our hackles? When we see movement out of the corner of our eye, we flinch. If we smell a woman’s perfume on our husband’s shirt, we become suspicious and hyper-alert. At the screech of brakes from the car in front, we slam the brakes.

gorilla, tension, subtext, feelings

I wonder what sensory data this gorilla might be “taking in” from his surroundings? Maybe the blinding sun, the smell of dirty straw, or possibly a heaviness in the shoulders from the death of a mate?   Image from Pixabay via Hans

This “danger data,” gathered from our environment, travels through our nervous system to the most primitive part of our brain—the amygdala. The amygdala takes the information and sends it to the frontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for sorting through the ongoing barrage of perceptions and quickly deciding if this is true danger or a false alarm. If there’s true danger, the adrenal gland fires up, and the brain sends signals down the spinal column to the limbs and stomach. The body goes into “flight or fight” mode. In short, we register danger before we’re even consciously aware of it.

An Exercise In Writing About Tension

Now what does this mean for writers? In this post I’m going to discuss two ways to create tension. The first involves providing data so that the reader experiences what the character’s experiencing. The second involves showing a character in distress and letting the reader infer that the character’s stressed out and tense. By the way, this is not the kind of tension found in movies. Fiction can be plenty tense without big events, car chases, or screaming matches.

Before I dive into this topic, however, I’d like you do a short exercise. I want you to really do this, not just read the words. By doing this exercise, you’ll “get” what I’m talking about in a much deeper way than if you just read my words and say, “Oh, yeah, I understand.”

Pick one moment in your life when you felt tense. Write it down.

 

What did you want or need in that moment? Write that down in a single sentence. (I needed someone to help me dry the dishes.)

 

Write down the sights, smells, sounds, tastes or touches associated with that event. (Sights and sounds are usually the easiest to write about, but if you can get all the way down to taste, you’ll be providing plenty of ammunition for your reader to climb into your body and understand what was so bad about this event.)

  1. sight
  2. sound
  3. smell
  4. touch
  5. taste

What was the result? Did you get your needs met or not? Write down what happened and the feeling associated with that result—relief, happiness, frustration. Try to locate that feeling in your body. (After the performance, my shoulders relaxed, and I felt deliciously lightheaded and hungry.)

 

Keep Tension High for the Reader

If you ended with frustration rather than relaxation, tension will linger in the body of the reader. Once you have a character relax, the tension leaks out of the story, and you have to quickly concoct another source of tension.

I’ll just say that in a story, as opposed to “real life,” it’s almost always better if the character doesn’t get her or his needs met. Protagonists must try and fail, try and fail, and eventually put their whole heart and soul into one final effort. In the meantime, however, you want to prolong tension as much as possible and give as many “angles” on tension as make sense. By angles, I mean that it would be good to include as much sensory data as possible.

Because tension arises from sensory data, if you provide that same sensory data to the reader, you can replicate that feeling of tension in the reader. Try to use all five senses: touch, taste, hearing, sight, and smell.

Dramatize Tension

Now, let’s move to a second strategy for depicting tension. This method requires you to dramatize–meaning show, not tell. Imagine your character as an actor in a play? Which stress-related behavior can you assign to your actor/character? Here’s a cheat-sheet.

A character experiencing tension may have some of the following things going on:

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Hyper-vigilance

If you include one of these stress-markers in a scene, the reader will worry that the character’s stress level is rising. The reader will worry even more if the character is so stressed out that she or he fails to notice the link between the stressor and the signs that his/her body is reacting to something.

woman, face, bullying

Symptoms of stress are sometimes easier to dramatize than to write about. Show a character climbing into bed for a mid-morning nap or letting the dishes pile up, and you’ll alert the reader to a character whose life is getting out of control. Image from Pixabay via geralt

Make Readers Worry on Behalf of the Protagonist

Make readers worry that something bad is about to happen or is happening right now. And, then, let them watch the bad thing unfold.

Here’s an example from my novel, Montpelier Tomorrow. Colleen, the protagonist has arranged for her family to spend her dying son-in-law’s last Christmas in Vermont—his wish, although one she had resisted. Taking care of Tony at home is hard enough. He can’t walk on his own. He’s falling a lot.

Now, they’re in Vermont, and Colleen is hoping against hope that he will have a good time. Instead, Tony asks about her deceased husband Rob. At this moment in the story, Colleen is lying on the couch with a bag of frozen peas behind her neck. She has a migraine. Partly that’s from making the arrangements for Christmas, but it’s also because she’s having an anniversary reaction to her husband’s death. She’s quietly imploding with grief that Rob isn’t there to help her shoulder the burdens of caring for the dying man, but it’s a private grief, one she hasn’t shared with anyone, not even her daughter. The last thing Colleen wants is to have someone pick at this old wound.

“I’m so sad,” Tony said.

“What’s making you sad?” I said.

“All morning I’ve been thinking about Rob.”

A claw-hand squeezed on my heart. The room felt airless. I stood up, intending to return the peas to the freezer before they thawed, but the migraine made me dizzy, and I sat back down. Seeing Tony wipe his eyes, I couldn’t help but ask, “What are you thinking about him for?”

“I wish I’d met him is all.” He buried his face in his hands and began to cry. “I’m not having any fun, whatsoever. It’s too cold.”

“You originally wanted to go to Nova Scotia,” I said.

“I can’t breathe,” he said.

Tony has ALS, and the disease has begun to affect his ability to breathe. Colleen realizes that her efforts to please him have backfired. She has put his life in danger.

What Can We Conclude From This Scene?

The tension hasn’t gone down, has it? Instead, a bigger problem has surfaced: Tony has entered the phase where ALS affects his breathing.

As you can see from the above, Tony is not the only one facing a challenge. Stress is taking its toll on Colleen. Will she stop and try to save herself? No. She is consumed by a desire to protect her daughter from the grief she foresees in Sandy’s future. The migraine is but one sign Colleen is getting in over her head. Rather than provide the data points about how a migraine feels, in this scene I relied on actions and dialogue to create tension.

Think of scenes where you could include a character experiencing one of the above signposts of stress. Don’t overdo it. Characters who run off and vomit or whose stomachs “heave” or “lurch” have become clichéd. Think about real life. You’ve been tense many times. How many of those times actually led to vomiting? Not many, I bet.

 

What did you discover when you did the exercise? Were sights easier for you to recall or did tastes come back to you?

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Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, and BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many other awards. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State. She has been a Writing Fellow at Arizona State University and has taught workshops on literary editing.