The Four Types of Tension

An exploration of the different types of dramatic tension, including relationships, tasks, surprises, and mysteries.

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Epytome / Used With Permission

Tension can be loud, dramatic, and exciting, but it can also be quiet and reserved. It should be both on and off the page, stated in some cases and inferred in others. Whilst every story will feature different tension depending on the situations and plot, tension in general can be grouped into four distinct categories, each of which contain their own attributes.

Relationships

Every character will have relationships with other characters around them, from partners and family to rivals and enemies. Equally, tension will exist in every relationship, though the form it takes will vary considerably.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, for example, is chiefly based on relationship tension from the perspective of the narrator. Both her strained marriage to her new husband and her difficult relationship with the housekeeper are fully exploited to deliver constant tension, as she is immersed in this unsettling new domestic life.

The Bees by Laline Paull is set in a beehive, with a large amount of tension derived from the rivalries between and enforced servitude of the different classes of bees within. The bees are divided into groups based on the flowers whose pollen was instrumental in their birth, and then numbered accordingly. As such, certain groups are seen as superior—and therefore others inferior—adding to the tension that is already established through the relationship between the individual and the hive.

Tasks

Having a task to complete—whether set by other characters or circumstance, or self-inflicted—brings tension in multiple ways. Along with the obvious will they / won’t they element, there is also the matter of finishing the task on time and effectively, and the ramifications of how both undertaking and completing that task will affect the character and those around them.

To Kill a Mockingbird features a central task, as lawyer Atticus Finch is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a man charged with rape. The story is set in the 1930s in the southern United States, which combined with the races of the two central characters—Finch is white, Robinson is black—means there are incredible levels of tension both from Finch taking the case, and from the trial itself.

When the electricity is shut down in Jurassic Park, the characters are faced with a variety of tasks. For those out in the park, they must survive and also get to a safe place. Those already seeking refuge must in turn attempt to restore the power and try to find and rescue the lost individuals. All of these tasks—combined with an additional element within the novel of velociraptors on a boat heading for the mainland which must be stopped—add up to consistent and compelling tension throughout.

Surprises

A surprise in the narrative will immediately add tension, as sudden alteration of circumstances will place the characters in new situations where they will be forced to adapt. Surprises can be delivered in different ways, and not all characters—or even the reader—need to be surprised; it is the adjustment of circumstance that injects tension.

Midway through Great Expectations, Pip discovers that his benefactor—who has been providing him with a healthy income—is an escaped convict who he helped when he was a child. This revelation brings more regarding other characters and their motivations, and what appeared to be a series of unrelated incidents in Pip’s life suddenly come into focus as a clear and direct result of his kindness to a stranger. Along with reshaping the narrative, this changes the tension as Pip now has purpose and yet is placed in newly difficult and perilous situations with often disastrous consequences.

Similarly, halfway through Fight Club there is a big reveal that changes the dynamic of the relationship between the two central characters. By altering how reader sees how them—and how the narrator sees Tyler Durden—the tension changes and the story shifts from one plot to another, all delivered by a single, surprising line.

Mysteries

Embedding a mystery to be solved—either by a character, multiple characters, the reader, or some combination thereof—can add additional layers of tension to a story. The mystery can either be the central concept or a subtle extra, or something in between.

Murder on the Orient Express is built around a mystery: a man who believed his life was in danger is then murdered, and private detective Hercule Poirot must then solve the crime. Both he and the reader are attempting to figure it out, meaning the plot and the reader’s necessity to keep reading are both—in part, at least—motivated by uncovering the answer.

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the titular character is unaware of what happened to his parents and why he has a scar on his head. As he discovers the answer, he is then exposed to magic and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which bring more mysteries for him to find. The continuous expansion of the world and addition of new layers of mystery—each needing to be solved to lead to the next, and each presenting more when discovered—adds constant tension throughout the novel, and then on through the series.

 

Although tension can be categorised, it needs to be organic based upon the story you wish to tell, and multiple types can be used together. Effective use of tension will ensure your story moves at a suitable pace and draws readers consistently further into the narrative.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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