Tension: Walking the Tightrope

N.C. Randall  
Tension is a key source of interest and reader engagement in storytelling. Of the many types of tension, the sometimes overlooked, under-appreciated, and misunderstand reader-vs-story or reader-vs-author tension can be both powerful and dangerous. If employed well it can add substantial interest to your stories.

We all want to make our writing interesting, right? Interesting writing needs a source of interest, to hold the reader's... interest. Without that, it's uninteresting. Very much like this paragraph!

There are many sources of interest: characters, setting, and plot mostly. In genre fiction, interest might take forms like, "Hey, that's a cool sword," or "Ooooh, aliens!" Interest can come from great prose and strong images, or from the ideas and themes. I'm not going to talk about any of that stuff here.


I'm going to talk about tension, which is a rather interesting source of interest. Tension is something slightly uneasy or unsettling that creates interest and reader engagement. Sometimes this is obvious conflict that keeps your reader turning pages until the conflict is resolved, or sometimes it's more subtle, like a character's inner conflict, a tense, eerie atmosphere, or an intellectual tension created by uncomfortable ideas. Whatever the source, if your story goes very long without tension, it falls flat and you lose the reader's interest. But tension, unlike other interest, is not entirely pleasant, and if you have too much of it, or the wrong type, or it comes at the wrong time, you can also lose your readers. (Hence: "Walking the tightrope", the title of this post.)

You're probably already thinking about tension between characters in the story. That's the obvious kind: some kind of conflicting goals between two or more characters. Our hero drops into a den of villains and must swashbuckle their way out. The protagonist's coworker is angling for the same promotion they're after. One character is trying to hide information from another during dramatic dialog. Or it could be conflict between a character and the environment: defusing that ticking bomb, surviving another night on the icy cliff, not knowing if help is on the way.

Information-Based Tension

I'm sure I could write a blog post about that kind of conflict-based tension, but probably we all understand it pretty well already, even if we haven't attached the label "tension" to it. I want to talk about tension not within the story, but between the story and the reader. Or you could think about this—and I suggest you do—as tension between the author and the reader. This kind of tension almost always involves some kind of information asymmetry—the reader knows something characters in the story do not, or conversely the characters know something the reader does not.

This type of tension, specifically the reader lacking information, is essential to the thriller and mystery genres, and a key component of many other genres. But it's at play in every story in every genre, to a greater or lesser extent, whether the author thought about it explicitly or not. In some modern literary fiction, it seems like the entire point of the game is to withhold fundamental information about things like basic plot elements and character motivation—even the protagonist's motivation—from the reader, and then figuring out what the heck the story is even about is what keeps readers reading. (Hey, don't look at me like that; some of us are into that sort of thing.)

But it doesn't have to be extreme. A smaller dose can add interest to any story. Imagine you've done a great job developing the character and backstory of your protagonist. Everything the character does is well-supported by that characterization, and the reader is nodding along all the way with every action and decision. But what if the character then does something unexpected? That's tension between the reader and the story. The reader doesn't understand the character as well as they thought they did, and now they're interested in the character again. Or maybe in your straight fiction story, all of a sudden something that seems supernatural happens, something surreal. Maybe there's a main character—the protagonist even—that is steadfastly mysterious to the reader in certain ways, with an unexplained backstory, ambiguous capabilities (or "powers" if working in genre fiction), complex or unclear motivations. There's definitely a "less is more" effect here that can pique the reader's interest.

First Build Trust with a Strong Foundation

But be careful, tension is a tightrope, remember? If the reader doesn't trust the author, they might just think this is bad writing. If you're posting your work for critique, there's a good chance you'll get comments about it from reviewers who say it's out of character, unbelievable, confusing, or something along those lines. This is the nature of critique, to distrust the author. But normal readers might not be so quick to jump to that conclusion, particularly if your writing is otherwise strong and confident, so that you've given them reason to trust you. Maybe you're a famous author, and readers trust you already, but if you're reading this blog post, then probably you need your writing to reach people who have never heard of you and have no reason to trust you. So before you pull something risky with this kind of tension, make sure the foundations of your writing are bulletproof: spelling, punctuation, grammar, prose, dialog. Only when those are solid can you start to take bigger risks with reader-vs-story tension (which is, again, also reader-vs-author tension).

Dramatic Irony

Mostly above I've talked about tension where the reader lacks information, but the opposite, where the reader knows more than the characters, is so important it has a name: dramatic irony. In Romeo and Juliet, we know Juliet is not really dead, but Romeo believes she is, and therefore kills himself. What would that scene be without the reader knowing the truth? Well it would still be pretty good, but there's a reason Shakespeare is famous, and it's not for writing "pretty good" scenes. Or imagine the story shows a conversation between a woman and her friend, in which the woman says she thinks diamonds are overpriced and gaudy and thinks the tradition of engagement rings is stupid and anachronistic. And then next we see the protagonist spending his life savings on a diamond engagement ring for her. Or, we know that satchel contains a vial of the Unobtainium that would solve all the protagonist's problems, but she doesn't, and she leaves it behind.

Again, don't overuse dramatic irony, because unlike some subtler sorts of tension, this one is obvious and in-your-face: your reader knows you're doing this to get a rise out of them. As will all tension, it's a tightrope. But it's another tool you can use to add color and drama to your story, in moderated doses. It can increase the impact of otherwise mundane parts of the story.


Once your fundamentals are good, start thinking about reader-vs-story tension. Keep in mind where less might be more in how deeply you explain your characters and their motivations, and use this sparingly—after gaining the reader's trust.

In the end, I can't tell you how to walk the tightrope; this kind of thing takes practice. So go practice! Put some reader-vs-story tension in your next story. Resist the urge to over-explain, over-describe, and fully justify every action by every character. And remember, not every critique comment you get complaining about ambiguous character motivation or missing backstory is one you need to act on.

Splash image by Danilo Batista via Unsplash



Wow. Most of the time, these articles tend to be very genre driven to which I can agree about 30 percent of what they say. But… I have to say, bravo. And a resounding Bravo. The information you provide where is powerful. It helps a genre writer, it helps a literary writer. I tend to call some of what you’re talking about, the elephant in the room. The characters may not know it and many times the reader does not know it yet, but in that dance you find meaning, and you keep your reader plugged all the way to the end.

Great job dude!!!

May-27 at 02:24


It’s an interesting and thought provoking post. I don’t know if these things have a word limit, because you don’t feel “talked out” at the end, or maybe it just is something you have a lot of thoughts about.

I love this, because it is rare to hear the author-reader relationship talked about. And that’s really the core of all writing. From emails to epic fiction.

I wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts on when this stuff goes wrong as well. For example the witholding thing - it is tried far more than it works, IMO. Tension between the author and reader goes so much better once you’ve got them. Until then, it is a careful flirtation of building trust without letting them get too comfortable.

At least one prominent backfire I’ve seen is when key information is withheld, but referred to, like stage whispering “here’s an information hole in the page”. It is almost always done to tantalise and it almost always irritates. That stuff is exciting to the author, but not the reader, because the author KNOWS the missing bit. We all manipulate readers, and the readers expect it, but like catching a politician lying, they get pissed if they catch us doing it. Particularly if it is about things relevant to the puzzle we’ve assigned them, and we get caught hiding the clues (or they think we are, even if we aren’t).

My contributions to the subject:

I don’t know if these can be called tension, but among the rules I break is “not interrupting the reading flow”. The golden rule seems to be to keep the reader reading. I break it on purpose in several ways. One major way is creating world dilemmas that distract from the plot, but pose philosophical puzzles. I will often break the flow considerably after posing one, so the reader can stop for a bit and think it through if needed.

Another thing I do is the purposeful insertion of elements that will only be noticed in the second or third read (after reading the story at least once) and they can be of a nature that add new dimensions of the plot to follow so that the story now has enough new layers to qualify as a fresh read on those fronts, including framing some events that may appear in one way on the first read. I see it as a kind of tension, because the reader comfortably thinks they know the story. Second read, right? Wrong. Rug pull. Did you really read this scene like you’re reading it now? So it’s a kind of tension - a more surprise/insight based one, but find one scene like this and I guess the reader is waiting for more shoes to drop (and they will)

May-27 at 07:12


Love this topic.

You could also add Narrator vs Narratee to that list. You could argue that information imbalance leads to indirect tension, but Narrator vs Narratee can lead to direction tension.

Take the example of a story device where ‘you’ are reading the dairy of a dead character. Who ‘you’ are (in the story) is not clear and part of that indirect information imbalance, but the dairy writers feelings about ‘you’ (as expressed in the pages) are direct and clear.

i.e. “So, you found my journal. I knew you would. I knew a piece of trash like you would stop at nothing to get their hands on it…”

Juicy, juicy devices

May-27 at 12:48


One of the most important devices out there, is rarely mentioned in writing books or even talked about, yet it is the most important technique you can use. It’s more important that plot, since it helps glue together plotted as well as character driven stories. Without this device, the contract between the writer and reader soon would become mush, or boredom, or why in the hell should I keep reading? It creates a balance between what has been revealed by to the reader, and what has been barely hinted.

Walter Mosley, who writes suspense, mystery and detective stories pointed out the importance of this device. That once you know it by name. Once you know its function, you will be master of your own pages, holding a little cord, twisting to an audience of cats, who cannot help but follow, and play, follow and play, until you deliver that final outcome.

Oh, the name of the device?


May-27 at 13:32


I’m glad you all found this useful, thank you!

No explicit limit but I imposed a limit on myself, because this is the tldr-era internet, right? I guess maybe I could get away with more on a writing forum, but I already looked at this and thought it was way too long for anybody to bother reading.

I think that yes, the big mistake is trying to get more rope from the reader than they’re (yet) willing to give you. So doing this before you get the hook in, or using it as the hook and waiting too long to fill the reader in. Like when you drop the reader into an opening scene where clearly everybody knows what’s going on but the reader. I think that works great for a few paragraphs at most, but you’d better start filling the reader in with little dribbles of information pretty quickly, even if you leave some of it mysterious.

One place I’ve seen this go overboard recently in published work is Stardust by Neil Gaiman, which I just finished reading. Here it was the other way around: Reader has information the characters don’t (dramatic irony). He did this in several places in that book, and especially toward the end the tension around one character’s fate was so high I had to keep putting the book down and doing something else because I was in fear of what I’d find on the next page. And I’m not going to post any spoilers, but in the end I didn’t like how he chose to unwind that spring.

Yeah, that’s a good way of looking at it, though sometimes it can also be fun to know you’re being played a bit. It does tear down the fourth wall and take you out of the story, which makes it less immersive. Like my experience with Stardust; I knew exactly what Gaiman was doing. As I said in the post, dramatic irony is usually more blatant than the other way around and makes the reader directly aware of the author’s role in it.

Well don’t keep us waiting in… whatever we’re waiting in.

May-27 at 19:52


This works particularly well when you do a novel in short stories, like Jennifer Egan and Junot Diaz do, where you, the reader know something that the characters at that point in time do not, because the previous chapter story, addressed that issue. It’s sneaky, but highly rewarding for the reader.

Yes. Let me pull the piece of paper in my left pocket where I had it written down. Shit, it’s not there. Did I write it in my phone? Or maybe is in a file in my computer. I must be losing it.

Okay, I’ll cut it out.

It’s called Suppression of outcome.

You, the writer knows what happens, but you purposely misdirect, provide hints, and incomplete elements, all providing one piece of the puzzle, but not the whole thing. In plotted fiction, you arrived at that big moment or event, in character driven fiction you arrive at a realization.

May-27 at 22:12


Is this a reference to theme? I know a lot of people like to try and use theme to pin/glue internal (arc) and external (plot) elements together.

I get that idea, but there’s also merit to the Four Corners Opposition argument, that one of the four corners can be a Thematic Opposition, who tend to make for more for a more interest and vicious villain than straight forward Antagonists.

I also like that debate about Suspense vs Tension. Not in terms of what the dictionary says each is, but more what definition of suspense and tension is most functionally useful for writers.

May-28 at 13:07


Perfectly put article. Love the analogy of the tightrope. So typical of many aspects of writing really. ‘X’ Is a good thing but too much ‘x’ becomes tiresome probably solves for x in a hundred ways, but tension is a prime example.

May-28 at 14:48


There’s also an element of laugh with vs laugh at here. If you’re being seduced by a puzzle, it can be fun. If you feel stupid for not figuring it out, you find an author who likes you better.

May-28 at 18:31


Thanks for an informative article, @Wundur. Sometimes I forget to include the tension and I get the “too much kumbaya” comments.

May-29 at 17:22


If you’re posting your work for critique, there’s a good chance you’ll get comments about it from reviewers who say it’s out of character, unbelievable, confusing, or something along those lines

Great post. And this part resonated so much as someone who likes to write from a different/foreign cultural perspective. Good thing we can learn how to walk the tightrope by walking it (and falling off sometimes. Many times in my case :slightly_smiling_face:)

May-29 at 18:51
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