Tension is essential in stories that will resonate with readers. As a reader, you know the feeling – staying up way past your bedtime because you can’t put that book down. This post is a short introduction to crafting tension that will have your readers hanging on every word.

Rule number 1: story is conflict.

This is the only rule.

Conflict pits your main character against any number of obstacles, whether human (classic antagonist), natural (think earthquake or tornado), emotional (boy loses girl), or other (society, science fiction element, etc.). Conflict is generated moment by moment, scene by scene.

Conflict creates tension, and results from the stakes. Your protagonist’s stakes must appear in your opening pages. High stakes create high tension.

Without tension in story your reader will yawn, put your book down, and watch some mind-numbing reality TV show instead of reading. Please don’t subject your readers to mind-numbing reality shows.

To create tension you must create conflict ON EVERY PAGE, because your ultimate goal is “to create a satisfying emotional experience for the reader” (James Scott Bell, Conflict and Suspense.)

Hamlet, creating tension

Alas, poor Yorick!

Bell – one of my favorite craft authors, by the way – takes this one step further, and suggests that in any emotionally satisfying novel the stakes have to be death. The genre doesn’t matter; whether it’s comedy or tragedy doesn’t matter. The stakes are death.

According to Bell, there are 3 kinds of death: physical, professional, and psychological.

  1. Physical death. Win or die. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones…thrillers, murder mysteries, much scifi and fantasy, etc. Those are the stories that explore physical death.
  1. Professional death. The death of the dream. The death of future dreams. For teens this can also mean death of the young self to be replaced by…? Think Because of Winn-Dixie, and Holes. Think of novels in which the teen is a failure in school or with peers and turning a corner into adulthood. What kind of adult will this kid become?
  1. Psychological death. Dying on the inside. Romances, angsty teen novels, comedies all contain psychological death. Catcher in the Rye, every teen romance are examples.

Obviously, you can also combine these: Twilight is some combination of all three (which may be one reason for its success?).

Exercise: take your favorite can’t-put-down novel and try to identify the death stakes. Check out the level of conflict on every page. Share here, if you like!

I’ll have more on conflict in an upcoming post.

Guest Post: Anna Staniszewski On Wrapping Up a Series

Today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome my friend and fellow EMLA author Anna Staniszewski. Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time teaching, reading, and eating far too much chocolate. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series, the Dirt Diary series, and the forthcoming Switched at First Kiss series, all published by Sourcebooks, as well as the picture book Power Down, Little Robot, coming from Henry Holt in March.

With all of her accumulated wisdom on series writing, she has some terrific thoughts on how to close out a book series without going crazy.Anna Staniszewski

Here’s Anna – but you can also find her at www.annastan.com.

The phrase “wrapping up a series” makes me picture a neat little bundle of books all tied up with a bow. A series feels so pretty and orderly when it’s all finished, but getting it to that point usually takes a good bit of ugly chaos. Since The Gossip File, the final book in my second series, came out last month, I thought I’d share a few techniques that I’ve found helpful in taming the chaos.

  • Plan ahead.

I used to be a die-hard pantser, but writing by the seat of your pants doesn’t work very well when you have to write several books that all need to tie together and come to a satisfying conclusion. These days, I write a synopsis for each book that I’m working on, and when it comes to sequels, I make sure that the synopsis for each follow-up book builds on what came before. There’s still a lot of adjusting and rethinking that happens along the way, but at least having that plan in place early on helps keep me pointed in the right direction.

  • Give each book its own journey.

If each book in a series is about the character facing the same challenges, the series is going to feel boring. I make sure to send the character on a distinct emotional and physical journey in every book, each one bringing out a different part of her character so that she’s forced to change and grow in new ways. If she’s battling her fear of failure in every installment, for example, readers are going to start to get a little bored.gossip file cover small

  • Have your characters evolve.

This is related to the previous point: If your character is the exact same person at the beginning of Book 1 as she is at the end of Book 3, that’s a problem (unless the point of the story is that your character doesn’t change). Readers want your characters to be flawed, but they probably don’t want to be yelling “don’t go into that closet!” over and over again. At some point, the character needs to start acting like a better version of herself so that we know she’ll be okay after the series is over.

  • Avoid bows that are too neat.

I started off by talking about wrapping series up in a pretty bow, but I must admit that I prefer stories that don’t tie up absolutely everything. Of course, all the big threads that have been introduced throughout the series should be addressed in some way by the end, but that doesn’t mean everything needs to be picture perfect. Throughout the Dirt Diary series, for example, Rachel struggles with her parents’ divorce. In the third book, I wanted to give that situation some closure, but I also wanted to keep it realistic. Ultimately, I created some hope for the future, but I also tried to make it clear to the reader that because Rachel has evolved as a character, she’ll be okay no matter what happens next.

Newest Catchphrase: Write Up!


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I'm about to head off to New York for SCBWI's 2015 Winter Conference. I remember my early conference-attending years. My anticipation was keen, but I recall not knowing what to expect as I went about the business of mingling with editors, agents, and … [Continue reading]