3 Easy Ways to Create Tension, Minus the Grave Peril

Romance writers seem to have a natural knack for developing internal tension in the tales they weave around lovestruck souls. 

Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series is a good example of deftly inserted internal tension. She cycles back and forth between action scenes with lots of danger and peril (and glittering) and action scenes wrought with tension and rather deadly vamps. One moment, her protagonists are brooding over the high stakes choices they have to make and the repercussions for their decisions and/or missteps and the next they are fighting for their lives. 

One type of scene keeps the story going at a good pace and makes for rather interesting reading, while the other ups the stakes, adds depth and makes us care. It also lets us catch our breath while our minds are still at work untying literary knots. 

When we build tension in a story, we often insert bombs, guns and other morbidly terrifying external threats. If we really want to up the ante, we throw a countdown clock in the story as well. Now we have tension, but it's Die Hard with Bruce Willis, circa 1988 tension. It may make for a good read if you are writing a commercial thriller, but not all of us are writing commercial thrillers and it's still sort of surface level. Somewhere in-between the chase scenes and the explosions, there needs to be some fiber or internal tension to add depth and make us care about the characters.

Don't get me wrong, if your character gets injured and I like them, I'm going to care. But if your character gets injured and I know that said injury is going to cause a major reaction because of other factors you dropped in quieter parts of previous chapters, I not only care, but I'm intrigued too. Now, I can't wait to see how this is all going to play out. 

Both types of scenes are essential, but internal tension scenes are the glue that keeps readers connected to your story.

If you don't add internal conflict, I won't care very much if something dreadful happens to your character. If you add internal conflict, I'll be devastated when something bad happens. 

More plainly: 

As a writer, you leave out the internal tension at your own peril.

These scenes are also important for a second equally important reason. If you don't incorporate internal tension into your story, then you may end up with a manuscript that doesn't have relief valves that let readers come down from strong action scenes. There has to be parts within your book that allow your readers to catch their breath and collect their thoughts, or else it feels like a never-ending roller coaster ride. That gets old really quick. 

How the heck do I do that?

So naturally, the next question is how do I create believable internal tension to help my story have rich layers and lulls between high actions scenes? And how do I develop these scenes so that they that aren't so low that my book becomes an Ambien substitute?

I'm going to show you one example that will help you build internal tension using a back issue of Women's Health. Just go with me, this will make sense in a moment.

I was paging through a back issue of Women's Health and came across an article by Kate Sullivan called, "Can you Keep a Secret?" This was one of those times when what I observed in real life helped me to approach the fiction I write differently and develop internal tension that is fiery and convoluted, which is just what readers like.

My old magazine provided fodder for an example that revolves around lying. Using that example, I'm going to show you ways you can develop rich internal tension in your story by simply knowing how your characters will react to certain situations. 

Here are three ways that you can develop internal tension in your story:

1. Create character rules

By fleshing out rules for your character's thoughts, mannerisms and behaviors, you can create tense situations for them. Frame character rules that make the interplay between your setting and your characters as fiery as the car crashes you throw in for good measure. You can also help your readers to become more involved because they will know the character rules and spot crisis in advance. What reader doesn't love spotting a train wreck a mile away, especially when they know the tension is about to boil over?

Back to the article. The author described three types of lies that all people tell at one point or another (compassionate, cover your a**, and big fat lies). By knowing your character's internal makeup and character deficits, you can create rules and then insert other characters into your stories that they will fall for, be taken advantage by, driven up a wall by, etc. This will help to make your characters appear more genuine and aid you in developing thick tension in your story.

Character rules look like this, if you actually take the time to map them out:

Victoria is a compassionate liar. She only lies to save other people's feelings from being hurt. That said, she will totally let you walk out of the bathroom with a wad of toilet paper stuck to your Christian Louboutin stiletto.

So that's Victoria's MO. You can add to this by thinking of other behaviors someone like her would do that would be loved or highly off-putting by others. You can also stick her in a broken elevator with a very intense and smelly person with no sense of personal space and lots of trivial questions. Perhaps she has to ignore or get information out of him. You can fill in the scene with an unappealing and difficult task for someone like Victoria and really heighten the story's tension. Your readers will experience her getting pushed completely to her limits, but never speak up about it. What's more, if you've developed a strong character, they'll see this disaster coming and love every minute of it.

This example shows that we can use the info from the article about the three types of lies to develop character behaviors that will illicit rich tension between characters and add a new level of depth to Victoria's story. No explosions or doomsday clocks required. 

We don't need to rely purely on lies to do this or use their characters purely to insert negative behaviors or to showcase flaws. It works with positivity and virtues as well. 

That said, we are focusing on lies for this example, which are a negative behavior born from a character's weakness. You can take any form of conflict or personality flaw, including lying, and rev your story up with it, especially if you test that chink in your character's armor by inserting a character with opposing traits or put Victoria in a situation that will force her to face the music. For example, marry your liar up with someone who is maniacal in their quest for truth. 

That leads us to step number two: 

2. Know your character and exploit that knowledge

We are going to look at the three types of lies in more depth to help us learn rule #2.

A. Compassionate Lies

The article stated that these are pretty harmless lies that don't suggest you have a mental issue. That doesn't mean that they can't be used to a writer's advantage. You can have a normally honest character tell a white lie and then get caught by someone who will be truly devastated by the truth or the deceit. Imagine Victoria telling the pastor at her ardently religious grandmother's megachurch that she didn't flush something down the toilet that jammed up all the plumbing during the first Sunday service. When the plumber fishes out the truth in front of the entire congregation, things are going to get interesting.

B. Cover-Your-A** Lies

The article said these lies have a ripple effect and are used to avoid embarrassment. They are also linked to some medical issues like headaches and depleted immune systems, according to the piece. That said, these are the types of lies that you want to have a character tell that can't handle embarrassment. Knowing your character rules helps here. Does getting caught lying make your character defensive or cause her to overshare? Is your male protagonist blushing, burning with anger or so stupefied that he walks away and never returns?

C. Big Fat Lies

According to the article, these lies create guilt, stress, regret, depression and paranoia about getting caught, except in sociopaths. To add internal conflict with these lies, you should capitalize on the symptoms and keep turning the temperature up. Sprinkle some false alarms in your story that make the liar think she's been discovered. This makes even little slip ups even more concerning and distorts the truth and reality just enough to keep both the character and the reader guessing. 

When all else fails, you can add a character with no conscience that defies these behaviors and truly puzzles your reader for pages upon pages.

The last thing the article provided that can be really useful for creating tension is body signals that prove that someone is a big, fat fibber. You don't have to describe every solitary movement your character makes and you shouldn't spell it out like, "I knew Jodie was lying when she cast her eyes down and worried her ring." 

Again, lies aren't the only way to develop internal tension in your story. You can use countless other behaviors and characteristics to flesh out conflict. A great way to find material is to people watch. What behaviors do people demonstrate that drive you up the wall, make you smile or sigh? What intrinsic characteristics do people possess that cause them to act in ways that they normally wouldn't? What things do people do out of habit, courtesy or because of their upbringing that aren't required, but tell a great deal about them and force them to lead their lives in a different manner than others?

Did she live in a filthy house as a child that caused her to be very sickly? As an adult, is she a complete germ freak, to the point that she won't shake hands with the VP at the big meeting?

Is he so wrecked by the way that a lie destroyed his father's life that he is trying to be the modern day George Washington? Is that causing friction with his wife who may be addicted to telling white lies that he won't corroborate?

This leads us to the final tip:

3. Lean on your natural instincts and let your readers do the same

Humans spend their entire lives developing intuition by studying the body language of those close to them, unconsciously. That's why sometimes you know your loved one is lying even if you can't prove it. Your readers should be able to pick up on subtle hints like that as well. Don't ruin it for them by spelling it out. Just like foreshadowing, gently weave the lying behavior in at the appropriate moments and let them spot the liar for themselves in a nuanced way.

Lying isn't the only behavior that we as humans naturally key up on. What other behaviors or body language are we subconsciously aware of and how can you take advantage of this to make your book appeal to readers in a subliminal way? Illness and love come to my mind right off the bat. 

The article mentioned several behaviors that make spotting a liar easier. You can use these subliminal clues to help you make your liars seem a bit more real to readers:
  • Very slight head shaking that almost doesn't register
  • A split second reaction before the liar catches herself. (The example they provided was a mom grimacing a second before she catches herself and says she loves her daughter's new apartment.)
  • Constant hand gestures, fidgeting, inability to relax
  • Mid-sentence pauses and taking longer than normal to respond to questions.
We covered three rules that can help writers to create internal tension that mirrors real life using lies, which are common tension makers in real life. Lies aren't the only way to build tension in a story, but they are a useful tool to store in your writing toolbox. When internal tension is woven into a story, it balances out external tension and makes for a mighty fine read. Internal tension adds depth to your stories that car bombs simply can't deliver.

By now, you should be brimming with ideas that will help make your story's internal tension unbearably rich for your readers. If you found this post helpful, be sure to share it with fellow writers and to subscribe to this blog for more writing tips and tricks. 

A final note: I'm not the only person who has ever read an old magazine or went to the grocery store for milk and happened to notice something that could improve my writing. Have you had a moment of pure writing genius that you would like to share? Please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

Happy writing,


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