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How to Build Tension and Heighten the Stakes

The stakes in fiction matter because stakes create tension. Here's how to up the stakes so your audience will stay with you until the end of your novel.

Excerpted from Between the Lines ©2006 by Jessica Page Morrell, with permission from Writer’s Digest Books.

The stakes in fiction matter because stakes create tension. The protagonist’s ultimate happiness, perhaps even his life, depends on the outcome. If the stakes in the story are low, then tension will be weak. The stakes are often linked to inner conflict, as the protagonist wonders if what is at stake is worth it. In these situations, the story line forces him to reconsider his beliefs and values.

It’s easy to recognize the increasing stakes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In the first scenes, the stakes are centered on Santiago’s ability to catch a fish and, by doing so, restore his reputation. The stakes go up as Santiago struggles to reel in the biggest fish he’s ever encountered. Will he land the fish? Will the fish drag him too far from shore? Finally, the stakes go up again as he struggles to survive his ordeal at sea, especially when sharks are drawn to his boat by blood lust.

Hemingway didn’t craft the story around a young man at the top of his game and at peak physical prowess. A fisherman with unwavering confidence and rippling muscles would not inspire the same kind of stakes (and thus tension) as an older man with so much to prove and gain or lose.

There are a number of handy tools in the fiction writing toolbox that can be used to induce and manipulate tension. Let’s look at them here.


Here’s an easy equation for maintaining tension throughout your story: Change equals tension. A novel is a record of a character being threatened and transformed by a series of changes, and as the story progresses these changes become increasingly threatening. The first change—created by the inciting incident—introduces the first dose of tension, but you can never let up pressure on your character.

When a character is threatened by a change, she often reacts badly or with desperation, creating more tension in turn. Change comes into play when new locales, characters or circumstances are introduced, and issues from the past invade the present. Of course, stories also can evolve around changes in the protagonist’s inner world that force her to confront her weaknesses, flaws and fears.

The best changes throw the protagonist off balance, while the ensuing changes keep her tilting further off as she struggles to right herself, but never quite succeeds. If the change tips toward a positive outcome, it needs to eventually turn sour. You might want to keep another formula in mind: Change equals torment. Torment your characters, and tension must result.

It can be helpful when plotting your novel to create a list of changes that you’re planning to inflict on your protagonist. As you orchestrate scenes dramatizing the changes, ask yourself what the worst possible outcome for your protagonist is. Often a character’s worst fears will be the subject of a novel or short story, and these fears can be reduced to a single word: change.


Stories are constructed around a series of surprises and twists. The unexpected unsettles readers, keeps the story from lagging and gives the story line a series of peaks that inject tension and hold the reader’s interest. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her pals finally reach the Emerald City to ask the wizard for help, he yanks the rug out from under them and demands that they bring back the witch’s broomstick. In Romancing the Stone, after Joan Wilder and Jack Colton find the sought-after emerald in the cave and escape the bad guys, they become separated by a river, and she is forced to confront her worst fears about him and face her sister’s kidnappers alone.

When you insert these mini-shocks, naturally tension is introduced. The reader stays involved because he wonders about the ramifications of these surprises. But some stories aren’t structured around surprises. Some stories offer a subtler unfolding, and some (like frame stories) have their endings revealed in the opening. From there, the plot unravels, illuminating how the ending came about. In these cases, the tension must stem from within the character, from motivations or sources that push her to act in certain ways.


Dialogue is not conversation, it is conversation’s greatest hits. Dialogue often is a power struggle, and this exchange demands that one person loses. It’s also loaded with subtext, the river of emotion that flows beneath the words but remains unspoken—and subtext creates tension. Dialogue is a natural place for conflict to play out: Perhaps one character is trying to placate an aggrieved character and failing. Dialogue can feature arguments, wheedling, whining, refusals and head games.

While some dialogue strictly dispenses information, most is an exchange where tension is palpable. Tense dialogue is a tight, more intense version of real-life speech. When you’re editing your own tense dialogue, examine the visual impact of your dialogue sections. Tense dialogue contains lots of short sentences, fragments and white space. If your dialogue is rehashing events that have already happened or is commenting on events that are happening instead of showing them, then it will dilute tension rather than build it.

If your dialogue goes on for pages without pause, it will lack tension, no matter the subject. If your dialogue contains chitchat, comments on the weather, greetings, compliments and other niceties, it also will lack tension. Exchange discussions for confrontations, arguments, teasing and misunderstandings.

If a large portion of your dialogue is staged as experts or sages conveying information, rethink your strategy. While genres such as thrillers and mysteries require experts to convey important data, try to keep these exchanges as brief as possible. Include visual elements, give the characters distinctive voices and add occasional humor in these scenes. Your other option is to reveal this information not in dialogue but in exposition, which is sometimes better suited for imparting facts.

Carl Hiaasen is known for suspense novels that are offbeat and driven by hilarious, edgy dialogue. Skinny Dip evolves around Chaz Perrone, a marine biologist who’s in the midst of an environmental scam. Because he fears that his wife, Joey, has caught on to his shenanigans, he decides to toss her overboard into the Atlantic while they’re on a cruise ship, forgetting that she was a former champion swimmer. She is later plucked from the water by Mick Stranahan. Joey decides to play dead for a while, and Stranahan helps her taunt Perrone while they figure out just how far to push him. Their mischief includes Stranahan making a series of phone calls designed to rattle Perrone:

Perrone said, “We should get together, you and me.”
“To talk.”
“We’re talking now,” Stranahan said. “You tossed your beloved into the Atlantic Ocean. I’m curious to hear an explanation.”
“I didn’t push her. She fell.”
“That’s not what I saw.”
“Listen to me,” Perrone pleaded, but his voice trailed away.
“Yoo-hoo? Chaz?”
“We should do this in person.”
“Do what? There’s eighteen hundred dollars in your checking account,” Stranahan said. “That’s pitiful.”
“I can get more,” Perrone blurted. Then, warily: “How’d you know what I have in the bank?”

Hiaasen’s dialogue is lively, conveyed by colorful characters using humor, fragments and short exchanges. The final words linger, creating an extra dose of tension and pushing the reader into the next scene.


All fiction evolves around revelations. When a reader first meets your protagonist, the reader knows nothing about him. The experience is akin to that of meeting a stranger at a party; the character, as you approach him, is a blank slate. After you chat for a few minutes, you learn he’s a stockbroker or a journalist or a barista at Starbucks. You discover his age or approximate age, whether he’s clever or dull, educated or illiterate, witty or serious, single or married, happy or depressed, calm or agitated.

When a reader encounters your protagonist, he’s a stranger, but once the reader comes to know his dominant personality traits, she will be able to form opinions based on his dialogue and thoughts and actions. With each page, the reader discovers the character’s flaws and strengths, his self-concept and desires, the influences from his past and, most of all, his secrets. And as each detail, each secret, is exposed, the tension mounts, as does the reader’s vested interest in your protagonist.

The most interesting characters have secrets or some intrigue that they don’t want people to know about. Perhaps your protagonist cheated on his wife and the subsequent divorce was his fault. Perhaps when he was 5, his father abandoned the family, and he’s never been able to recover from that loss. Or perhaps he is ashamed of a childhood trauma, or of his need to be mothered by women.

This is not to say that all characters are, at their core, troubled personalities. The point is that perfect people are boring and lack tension. Characters must have emotional needs, wounds and skeletons in the closet. Factors like these will cause tension and keep the reader interested until the end.

Readers are nosy; they want to delve into a character’s private affairs. In the real world, we’re rarely able to snoop to our heart’s content. In fiction, we have a license to look around, to open up the secret drawers and hiding places. Be sure to give your readers a chance to do just that.

Quick Tip: Don’t Forget to Breathe

While all good fiction is imbued with tension and suspense, it requires ebbs and flows to vary the level of tension throughout the story. To achieve this, you need to intersperse breathers, where you turn down the tension a notch, throughout your high-tension scenes. The number of breathers you should use depends on both the needs of your story and the demands of your genre.

A romance, for instance, requires more breathers than many other genres because it’s centered on characters’ emotions and inner conflict; by nature, the reader wants to spend time exploring these emotions. So in a romance, breathers might take the form of dialogue with a trusted confidant, character thoughts or sequel scenes.

Thrillers, on the other hand, keep the tension ratcheted up. Still, breathers appear most often in the form of transitions that serve the function of changing locations or relaying important data.

No matter the genre, the best breathers appear natural to the story line and the character’s personality, and might include eating a meal, walking the dog, straightening the office or attending a party. Because all fiction contains peaks and valleys, you’ll want to make sure the lulls of the story don’t stop the momentum, but instead simply provide a pause or turn the drama down a notch or two. Sometimes these lulls are the calm before the storm. If so, be sure to make the action that follows the lull doubly intense.

Exercise: Editing for Tension

The most tense fiction is pared down to the essentials, with every word in every sentence having a distinct purpose, every sentence in every paragraph being necessary to the whole, and every scene contributing to the story line. Every writer has a different approach to editing, but generally it’s best to edit in stages, examining separate elements or effects in each stage of editing.

No matter your system, your goal should be to decide what’s essential and what’s gratuitous to—or otherwise a digression from—the essence of your story. Begin by casting an eye at overall flow and pacing, both of which are linked to tension. Consider these questions:

  • Have you begun the story at the last possible moment?
  • Does the opening create intense curiosity?
  • Is there a single dramatic question that focuses the story?
  • Is the story overpopulated?
  • Does the story locale contribute to the tension?
  • Are the subplots a source of tension?
  • Do the flashbacks contain tension, or do they meander backward in time?
  • Is there a major reversal or surprise midway?
  • Is there too little or too much foreshadowing?
  • Have you withheld information from the reader until the last moment?
  • Are the stakes high and the consequences for failure dreadful?
Build Your Novel Scene by Scene

If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.

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