There are WAY more than 5 ways to generate tension, but I try to bring these blog posts in at under fifty billion words, so….
These are good ways to generate tension biggity or bitty. You do know that every scene needs tension, don’t you, the more the merrier? Some tension is tiny, some is funny (some is? some are?), and some is/are/am GINORMOUS! !! !
5 Ways To Generate Tension
Back in the day, my then-new stepkids used “fuzzy” to mean cute and sweet. One day, the youngest asked me if I thought she was fuzzy and I thought she said fussy, and I said, “No, not at all!” When I saw the distress on her face, I realized what she had really said, explained the misunderstanding, and assured her that she was as fuzzy as a peach. In a story, that could turn out to be major for one or both of the characters.
In Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Frank and Fanny are to meet and marry. He’s there in his uniform, with his mates and the priest, but Fanny has misunderstood which chapel he meant, and comes just as everyone is leaving. Frank is furious and doesn’t marry her. She dies in shame, giving birth to his child, and the loss of her affects his life and sends ripples through the plot and the lives of everybody in the book.
Mistaken identity might be a sub-category of this. True story: We had just moved in over here when a woman and man drove up and got out. The woman carried a box of food up to me: bread, peanut butter — inexpensive stuff that would go a long way. She asked my name, I told her, she said she had been given my name by (name of somebody I worked with in Louisville). I was like, “Really?” She said this friend knew how hard it was with kids aged (younger than ours). It turned out she was looking for somebody else with my name, having been referred by somebody other than my friend but with the same name. AND, the woman she wanted had the same number of girls a couple of years younger AND they needed winter coats AND we had just cleaned out the closets and had some for those ages. Weird, hum? Don’t put that kind of mistake in a story, though, because nobody would believe it.
Oh, so many ways! Pick up a ringing cell phone and hit “ignore” when you mean to hit “answer”. Grab the wrong bottle and put Cayenne pepper into the food instead of paprika. Leave the closet door open so the recipient can see the surprise present. Trip and sprain your ankle so your understudy has to take your place.
Or huge: Airplane crash. Car goes off the road. Avalanche. Fall into a crevasse or a manhole or a well or a gravel pit filled with water (Silas Marner, anyone?).
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Guy walks under a ladder just as the painter spills his paint. Character tries to sneak into his own house at night but steps on the cat’s tail. Lady in a hurry goes to buy something in a story that’s running a special on a hot item. Somebody needs to do The Thing, and there the character is….
A character is present when a crime is committed. How many ways can that go: Collateral killing, or on the run from being tied up like a loose end, or blamed for the crime, or accused of being an accessory, or not seen by the criminal at the time and in a position to blackmail.
In the path of a natural disaster. The only man in the office when the boss lady is mad at her boyfriend. In the front row of the theater when the creepy illusionist reaches out to grab a volunteer. Looking over how badly somebody keyed somebody else’s car when the car’s owner comes out and sees the character holding a handful of keys. The king of the fairies sends his minion to make a man fall in love with a woman, and gets the wrong man, and makes him fall in love with the wrong woman.
Remember the Susquehanna Hat Company? Everybody has sore points and hot buttons and touchy subjects. If nobody told the new boyfriend how Aunt Ethel feels about Canadians, and he’s a hockey fan, that’s trouble just waiting to happen.
Slapstick comedy is about hidden danger a lot: the banana peel on the sidewalk, the rake on the lawn, the timed sprinkler, the unstable ladder, the mousetrap in the coat pocket, the newly-painted park bench.
Hitchcock was a master at these. Whether it was a bomb in a birdcage or a snake under the couch or a lunatic on the front desk of the motel, he could really wind the audience up.
Sometimes this is also Wrong Place, Wrong Time: somebody has set a snare for someone, and the wrong person might walk into it. The wine is poisoned, in case Hamlet isn’t killed in the duel, but the queen grabs it instead.
Oh, my dear goodness, uncertainty is a gold mine of tension! Why are the Jensons so late? Does this dip taste funny (or does it taste like bitter almonds)? Will Paul ask your heroine to the dance? Will your main character get the assignment he covets? Where is the will? Is that guy really on the side of the protagonist, or is he actually working for the other guy? Which door should he choose, and is what’s behind it the lady or the tiger?
What are some other good tension-producers for fiction?
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Take a tension-free scene you’ve written and add a bit of tension. Not you, Jane — you couldn’t write a dull scene on a bet.