Sunday, May 23, 2010


What makes people tense? Lots of things. But what makes them most tense is when they’re unsure about something. For example, they think they might know that their boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife is having an affair, but they aren’t sure. Once they’re sure, one way or another, they might feel a lot of things but the tension is different. I could be wrong about this but I think the peak of the tension is not knowing.

When your goal is to intensify tension one of the best ways to do that is to put your character in this place of not-knowing and carefully describe what he or she goes through when they’re there.


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Great post! I like to put my characters in a not-knowing situation, but I suspect I don't let them react enough.

The Daring Novelist said...

I think it's actually a combination between what you know and what you don't. Two examples:

When I was a kid, we had a bus driver who would speed like a demon when there was poor visibility, but as soon as the fog or other weather cleared, she'd slam on the breaks. What she didn't know didn't scare her.

But, it was because she didn't know what she didn't know.

Hitchcock always talked about how if you had a couple of innocent guys talking about baseball, and then the room blew up, it was a surprise. But if you show the bomb to the audience, and not the characters that creates tension.

Since in a book we're inside the character's head, we can't always know more than they do (although the audience can learn something in another point of view before the scene starts).

But I think we can let them know what they don't know. We can give them a hint that makes them see something critical is going on.

Andrea Mack said...

Interesting post.

Sometimes what you think you know can be scarier than not knowing.

Brian Yansky said...

Thanks Deb. I always have trouble slowing things down, too. I think that's one of the things I know about myself and work on in revision

The Daring Novelist--great name. True. That's another way of creating tension. Let the reader realize something that is threatening the character that the character doesn't realize. That can be effective, too.

Andrea--that makes sense;we can make up all sorts of stories in our minds and, sometimes, I think that can create really effective psychological tension and develop character.

Thanks all for interesting comments.

Lisa Gail Green said...

AWESOME post! So short and sweet and TRUE! That tension is so important and that is exactly when it occurs - it's the unknown. Good for character development.

Brian Yansky said...

Thanks, Lisa.

Vonna said...

I love this concept. I have a thin thread of it in my WIP, but now I'll think about beefing it up.