What’s pressure? Why and the way it makes higher books

Year after year, mysteries, thrillers and exciting stories dominate the box office, bookstores and streaming services. We love tension. We demand it in our conversation.

But what (exactly) is tension in a story? And why is tension so important in a good storyline?

Is it possible to examine what constitutes tension to understand why readers and viewers find it so tempting? Can you learn how to create and command it to please your own readers?

I think you can.

That is why I am writing a special series of articles on the elements of tension. I believe that if you focus on what tension is and how it works in a story, you can learn to use it in your own writing to improve the quality of your work.

Tension combines with curiosity and surprise to form the dynamo that powers a well-told story. It keeps readers moving, busy, and turning the pages.

Tension can be one of the most difficult literary terms to define. In this article, we're going to establish a working definition of tension and discuss what distinguishes it from curiosity and surprise.

We'll also explore the reasons readers find the suspense genres so appealing, and examine some examples of suspense, surprise, and curiosity to see how they propel the story forward.

Once you understand what tension is, you will find that there is no secret why the suspense genres have become so dramatically popular over the past few decades. And also why they're all showing signs of continuing to attract large audiences.

How I got into tension

I was born with a love for mystery and tension. I'm pretty sure it's in my genome.

Both of my parents were big fans, and I grew up watching Mystery Theater on the radio when I was out with the family and watching late-night thrillers like Rear Window and Duel on TV.

I read at the age of four and some of my first favorites were Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew. I grew up in southern Arizona and spent my summers wandering two miles of hot desert to our local library. I still remember the sweet relief of stepping into the cool, dark foyer and the smell of old paper and library paste.

Sitting on the floor in the mystery area under narrow, red-tinted windows to dim the scorching sun, I built stacks of books to take home in my backpack. It was hard work but worth every moment.

And when it comes to my writing, it has always been about tension. Other children wanted to become doctors or firefighters. I wanted to write thriller novels.

So i did.

During a recent visit to my sister's, she recalled some of my first attempts at writing that left us in the lurch. As a writer, you might find it amusing too. Here is a short video account.

To say all of this, I love writing suspense stories in my own books, but I also like teaching writers how to put tension into their own stories, especially when it comes to mysteries, thrillers, or engaging books.

So in this post, we're going to dive into the definition of tension and the why and how of using tension to keep your readers engaged.

We'll also look at examples of tension along the way!

What is tension?

Tension is the word of the day. This article looks at the pros and cons, ups and downs, of tension, and shows how you can use them in your own work.

There is an important difference between tension as a genre and tension as an element in a story. While suspense stories, mysteries, and thrillers have suspense-dependent plot – you guessed it – it is crucial that each story contain tension in some way.

But what is tension? We could define tension in a story like this:

Tension is the element in a story that creates mental uncertainty about what is going to happen. Tension is directly related to the stakes of a story and encourages readers to predict outcomes and end a story to find out what happens to the protagonist in the end. This applies to fiction and non-fiction books.

When you think about what it is about and how the tension leads a reader to know the outcome of these inserts, you realize that tension is a great thing.

It guides the reader forward through twists and turns and always beckons to a satisfactory resolution. It's a bit difficult to hold in your hand and look straight in the face, but this only adds to the mystique and allure of the tension.

However, we are going to use a working definition of tension anticipating an outcome– known or unknown, pleasant or feared.

Think about the etymology of the word tension. It literally ties in with something that hangs, is hung, and has an uncertain future. Tension is inherent in such circumstances.

It's interesting to see that the tension in a story operates on at least two levels:

  1. What the characters feel as they approach an expected outcome.
  2. What the reader experiences can be similar.

Or something completely different.

After examining what tension is, let's take a closer look at why it works and what makes tension an essential element in a well-told story.

Why does tension work in stories?

It is human nature to see someone passionately achieve their goal. That desire multiplies when we feel the weight of what is at stake.

Suppose you are watching a soccer game. If you don't have an affinity with either team, the experience is rather apathetic.

So imagine your son is the quarterback for Team A. See how that adds to the tension? Now it's important.

But let's raise the stakes.

Let's say you know there is a talent scout in the audience for your son's favorite NFL team. That takes the tension to a higher level, doesn't it?

And if you want to raise the tension on a fever, let's say your little girl has been kidnapped and the kidnapper is demanding that your son's team win the game or you'll never see her again. Now you're hanging on the edge of your seat with your heart pounding, fingernails digging into your palms with every pass and tackle, right?


Tension in novels works because you are invested in the outcome.

The stakes must be high and the reader must be able to clearly see what the protagonist can win or lose. When conflict arises – obstacles and complications that keep your character from achieving their goal – the tension builds and the reader stays on the side.

An example of a story with progressive complications that keep the tension rising is the Mel Gibson film Ransomware. The "simple" act of kidnapping goes sideways and with every turn a happy outcome seems increasingly unlikely.

Although your neck may be tense with tension, you will continue to watch to see if the desperate parents can get their young one back safe and sound.

It is also very clear when a story is a compelling story because of this tension. Tell me that when you watch this trailer for Ransomware, or when you read the back cover of a mystery, thriller, or suspense book, you won't feel that gripping grip.

How does tension work?

You know your story well. We are all. We learned it on our mother's knee and continued training through every encounter with friends, family, teachers, media – everything.

Every burned finger or injured ego has a story.

Stories are how we learn in life and what moves us forward through the good and the bad.

At its core, the world is about story patterns, and we all instinctively know how they work – even if we can't talk about the mechanics.

Because of this, we can use the parts designed by the storyteller to predict and foresee what might happen in the story. This allows tension to work when we formulate ideas about what could happen and eagerly move forward to see if we are right.

Even if the expected event doesn't happen, we worry and wonder if the story will produce our predicted outcome. And if we guess wrong, we are content with a story that ends with a surprising but inevitable twist.

Give your reader all the information they need and have them put the pieces together themselves. You've made her an active participant in history who is naturally more invested.


Stories are how we learn in life and control the good and the bad. This is why we use storyteller designed parts to predict and anticipate what will happen in a story. That creates tension.

Let's look at an example:

In the film The Fugitive, the pieces are laid out for us early on. We have Dr. Richard Kimble, wrongly convicted and jailed for killing his wife. We have the one armed man who committed the crime. We have a US marshal who doesn't care about the guilt or innocence of his quarry. He's just obsessed with catching Kimble.

We see the pieces move and predict that Kimble will find the one-armed man and prove his own innocence. This is the result that we expect, and we will watch with keen attention how the pieces interact and whether we have guessed correctly.

Suspense works on the basic principles of history that are instinctive for each of us.

We all want to see what happens in the end, and with a well-constructed story, we'll hold on with both hands until we see it.

Tension as survivability

The tension depends on your reader's ability to make predictions based on the clues and information you provide for them. It's not difficult to think of this as a survivability passed down through generations, as those best able to interpret the clues lived to tell the story and contribute to the gene pool.

While those immune to tension did not.

Okay, that's a little imaginative, but what remains is the tension that comes with your reader thinking it through to some extent and anticipating the outcome at some level.

I remember seeing a sketch on Sesame Street as a kid. A cartoon girl wants to pop a balloon with a pin. In her mind, she sees what could happen: she pushes the needle into the balloon, it pops with a loud bang that scares the cat, who jumps on the mantle and knocks over the vase, which falls on the floor and shatters.

The girl imagines that she will have big problems with her mother. She anticipates disaster and her ability to do so prevents it.

There's another sketch on Sesame Street where this girl imagines what would happen if she popped the balloon and scared her boyfriend Donald. Again she imagines, bit by bit, what could happen and then thinks about it better.

This is how we want it in real life – catastrophe averted. In the fiction we consume, it's the other way around. We call for disaster and we look forward to being able to foresee it.

That joy we feel is tension.

And it is this tension that leads us to invest in a story and read to find out what happens. As you write your own stories, remember to give your characters – and your reader – something to worry about, something to anticipate. When you add high stakes to the outcome, you have excitement.

Why every story needs suspense

Any type of story – not just mysteries and thrillers – needs to have tension in it to keep a reader progressing. Tension is what drives the reader forward and devours sentence and paragraph in order to arrive at the solution.

For example, the Sophocles play Oedipus Rex relies heavily on tension as readers (or viewers) press forward to learn how the tragic hero will fulfill the prophecy that foretells that he will kill his father and marry his mother.

Shakespeare used the tension in his play Othello to keep the audience in suspense as they watch the title character destroy his life through jealousy, wondering if he'll find a way to escape the destructive vortex before it closes is late.

Harper Lee's book To Kill a Mockingbird is tense as readers marvel at mysterious neighbor Boo Radley and follow the courtroom drama to discover the outcome as Scout's father defends an accused rapist.

Tension is what motivates the reader to keep turning pages as they anticipate story events. Any type of story should have some tension to serve that function, whether for a New York editor or simply for your own enjoyment.

However, if you're writing a mystery, thriller, or other engaging novel, you need to raise the bar.


Tension is what motivates the reader to keep turning pages as they anticipate story events. However, if you're writing a mystery, thriller, or other engaging novel, you need to raise the bar.

In a puzzle, for example, you need to arouse suspicion and provide clues so that the reader can solve the crime together with your main character and anticipate the outcome.

In a thriller, you need to make sure your reader knows what kind of disaster your protagonist is trying to prevent and what consequences their world will be shaken if they fail.

In a compelling story, you need to create an atmosphere of underlying danger and let your reader know that things are not what they seem, while laying clues so they can anticipate the truth beneath the surface.

Never be afraid! In this series of articles, you will learn how to do it – and much more. So stay tuned.

Welcome curiosity

The three modalities that entertain a reader and advance the story are curiosity, surprise, and suspense. While the three are related, they are not synonyms. Let's look at some notable differences.

We make a promise to our readers about the genre and reader expectations from the very first sentence of a story. It is our job to keep this promise. What a reader brings to the table is curiosity and a willingness to be satisfied.

A good story raises questions for the reader. The big, overarching question is only answered in the climate scene, but intermediate questions carry the story with it on a wave of curiosity.

In Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton, Phyllis A. Whitney said:

“In any font, we can rely on the readers' curiosity to carry the story for a while. Provided, of course, that we deliver something we can be curious about. . . Curiosity serves us very well at the beginning and from time to time afterwards. "

Curiosity raises questions, but without the accompanying information to enable the reader to predict and anticipate, the tension won't build.

For example, story openings often ask the reader questions, but since the story has only just begun, there is not much that the reader can predict yet.

If you provide the supporting information piece by piece, the reader is put in a state of tension.

Case in point: story openings

Here are some story openings that raise questions and interest the reader, but don't meet the standard of suspense:

I was in a deep sleep, alone on board my houseboat, alone on half an acre bed, alone in a sweaty dream of hunting, fear, and monstrous predators.

– The Terrible Lemon Heaven, John D. MacDonald

As we read this we may ask ourselves: who is in bed? Why is he alone? Why does he have nightmares? What are the nightmares about?

But without further information, we are unable to make many predictions that he will soon wake up with a racing heart. This creates curiosity but little tension.

My decision to become a lawyer was irrevocably sealed when I realized that my father hated the legal profession.

– The rainmaker John Grisham

As we read this we may ask ourselves: who is this lawyer? Why does his father hate the legal profession? Why does he hate his father?

Again, we're curious and want to read on to get answers, but we're not yet excited.

I suppose he must have been in his early twenties. It was hard to be sure of his age because so little of his face was available for study.

– The burglar who liked to quote Kipling, Lawrence Block

The bigger question here is, "What happened to his face?"

This opening creates some compelling curiosity and the beginnings of tension, but we will need more information before we can expect any meaningful outcome.

Surprise surprise!

Some of the most memorable moments in a story surprise us out of the blue. These surprises are impressive and keep us updated on what's happening on the site and want to know more.

In her book Story Genius, Lisa Cron says: "Surprise immediately catches our attention, precisely because it contradicts our expectations."

This type of intense focus is really a survival mechanism that causes us to draw attention and evaluate the situation in order to decide what course of action to take. It can be a lifesaver.

In the story, the surprise can appear in the opening movement of one or the last scene in the form of a cliff hanger. It's a sudden ripple in our pond or a big ripple.

In any case, the surprise is unplanned, unexpected and hits us with shock.


Surprise in a story is unexpected and unplanned. The tension in a story grabs the reader and holds it on to the end. Both elements delight readers, especially those who are fans of mysteries, thrillers and exciting books.

Its effect is immediate, but its influence can quickly dissipate, which means that one of the other modalities – curiosity or tension – must take its place in order for us to hold onto the story.

Let's look at some examples of how surprises are used in stories to generate reader reactions.

3 examples of surprises in stories

Here are three surprise snippets, bumps in the story road that pop up without warning:

The body had no head. This single, gruesome detail was the most prominent feature of the police photos shared among the three CID officers gathered at the round table in the Scotland Yard office.

– A great relief, Elizabeth George

This surprise jumps towards us with the first, blatant sentence: The body had no head. It's unexpected. We're reading a crime thriller so we know there will be a body, but we're not prepared for the body to start with a neck stump.

This makes for a quick shock, but it squirts out quickly. Rest assured, George was hooked right away to keep your readers busy.

Steven went into the utility room, pulled the limp beige curtain aside, and looked past a cut-back crepe myrtle into the side courtyard. "Nothing. I think we …"

Cried Emma.

A face studied her through the back window. The man's head was covered in a stocking, though you could see crew-cut blonde hair and a brightly colored tattoo on his neck.

– The bodies left behind, Jeffery Deaver

The scream first catches our surprised attention and the stocking-covered head of the man holds the surprise up for a moment longer, but then we get into tension, which will dissipate well when the surprise dissolves.

"Wait!" Steadman yelled, hit the brakes, and pulled the wheel to the left. The SUV was heading straight for the old pickup and the headlights were bouncing madly. A split second before the impact, the SUV's wheels spun to the right and the entire vehicle tipped backwards and to the side, pulling back from the truck.

– Steadman & # 39; s Blind, Joslyn Chase

Every time a traffic accident occurs it is a surprise. If we knew it was coming, we would be prepared, but it suddenly strikes and shocks us with unforeseen violence.

In my book, I immediately followed this with literal tension as the SUV hung over the edge of the pavement destroyed by the volcanic river. I presented some possible outcomes to my readers and made them predict what would happen, replacing surprise with tension.

A masterful explanation: when it's surprising and when it's exciting

Alfred Hitchcock, who has long been recognized as the master of tension, has explained the difference between surprise and tension at full speed. I will rewrite it here:

Let's say a couple is dining in a restaurant and a bomb suddenly explodes without warning – that's a surprise. We didn't see it coming and it shocks or excites us and gives us heightened emotion for about fifteen seconds.

But what if we see the villain's henchman plant the bomb and set the timer before the couple arrives? Now we're worried. We marvel at every second of the conversation over dinner. Will the bomb go off? Will the couple discover it and escape its explosion? Is something else going to happen to get them out of the way?

That is tension.

I think of surprise and excitement like my two favorite ice cream flavors. Tension is a deep, dark, intense chocolate. It penetrates your senses and releases your pleasure centers and melts in a slow relaxation of delicious tension.

Surprise, on the other hand, is like the strawberry. It hits you broadside with a breakout both sour and sweet. It's delicious and satisfying, and then it's gone. Sometimes it leaves a sticky mess.

In your own work, you want to provide both surprise and excitement to your reader. Use the surprises sparingly, however, as too many will spoil their effectiveness. However, feel free to indulge in the tension.

Why do readers find tension so attractive?

Marie Rodell said in Mystery Fiction that people read mysteries to get:

  1. The vicarious thrill of the manhunt. . . intellectually carried on in the cleverness of both detective and reader.
  2. The satisfaction of seeing the transgressor punished.
  3. A sense of identification with the people, mostly the hero, and events in the story that make the reader more heroic.
  4. A sense of conviction about the reality of the story.

In Suspense Thriller, Paul Tomlinson points out that the chase and escape scenes offer the same thrill we had as kids playing tag or hide and seek. And clandestine, clandestine actions are naturally exciting.

When I was in elementary school my best friend lived around the corner and my biggest thrill came from sneaking down the alley and shooting the bush to the tree to get to her house without anyone seeing me. At least that's what I imagined.

We enjoy this kind of tension in our fiction, partly because it's cathartic. We are ready to endure some discomfort because we have learned that we can expect certain benefits – a pleasant increase in heart rate, an adrenaline rush, maybe even euphoria. We receive training for the spirit and strengthening of the values ​​that are close to our hearts, such as life, freedom and justice.

We can even get a heightened sense of community and a cleansing emotional discharge. All of this also creates four unexpected benefits when reading thrillers.

Building the foundation for tension in your stories

We saw that tension is all about anticipation, so your reader looks forward to projected events with some kind of emotion – pleasure or fear.

For this to happen, however, you need to lay the foundation on which tension can begin and be built. You need to involve your readers deeply in the world of stories and make sure they care about what happens to your protagonist.

I'll teach you how to do this in the articles below, and how to build that foundation in your stories to give you a trustworthy springboard to excitement.

So don't forget to bookmark this page and we'll see you next time!

How about you? Do you see how curiosity, surprise, and excitement move you forward through the stories you read? Tell us about it in the comments.


In the last article, The Elements of Suspense, I asked you to come up with a premise for your own mystery or thriller.

Now, in a sentence or two, I want you to take this idea up and expand it by thinking of some future events that could happen in your story. List three or four.

Make sure to include a surprise as well as some slow burn events to build a tension web around.

Take fifteen minutes to make a list of future events. When you're done, share your work in the comments and give your co-authors feedback!

Here are some example sentences to help illustrate what I mean.

In my story, I could imagine a scene that reveals a secret relationship between two of my characters (tension). I could plan something to discover a character's hidden identity (tension). And I could throw in a plane crash (surprise!)

When you know what might happen later, it's time to set it up for your reader.

Notice I said what could happen. Readers aren't the only ones who can surprise you in a book. Sometimes we surprise ourselves with twists and turns that we didn't see at the beginning.

Later, we'll learn how to use premonitions to set events up to feel natural and inevitable without being too predictable. For now, just imagine a few future events.

Joslyn ChaseAny day she can send readers to the edge of their seats tingling with tension and chewing their fingernails on the knob is a good day for Joslyn. Get their latest thriller, Steadman & # 39; s Blind, an explosive read that will have you flipping through to the end. No Break: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's newest collection of Short Suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.