Heighten Tension by Raising the Stakes

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

If you heighten tension, you can transform a good book into a book readers can’t put down. That’s because we’re hardwired for danger. We register a threat when we see a shadow on a sidewalk. If a dog lunges toward a fence, we jump back. If our spouse tells us he’s having an affair, we scream. All this occurs in a nanosecond. We don’t “decide” if we’re threatened or afraid. We take in data, and our bodies react.

cave painting of human hands

These are handprints from a cave painting. They’re 10,000 to 12,000 years old and a testament to how similar we are to our long-ago ancestors. Our primitive “flight-or-fight” responses gave homo sapiens the advantage over other hominids. Even today, our bodies react when we’re frightened. Fear = tension. We’re tense when there’s a lot at stake: life or death, success or failure.
Taken at the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.


Get Rid of Slow-Moving Passages

When I go to a bookstore and randomly pick books off the shelf, I’m often amazed at how similarly many novels begin. If you can get rid of passages like those below, you’ll heighten tension simply because you’re eliminating slow moving passages and cliches.

  • Characters talking about the weather;
  • Waking up in bed or with amnesia;
  • Staring out the window;
  • Taking a shower or drinking a cup of tea or coffee;
  • Brushing teeth and looking in a mirror.

Make Passive Characters More Active

One reason books start with a character waking up in bed is that the writer is just getting to know the character. What better way to get to know someone than to watch them go through their morning routine?

True enough, but that’s pretty boring for the reader. Readers want to see what the character’s going to do.

A character putzing around her apartment is passive. Passive characters won’t enlist readers’ sympathies nearly as much as characters prepared to fight for what they want. Make your character active. Show their good side before revealing their bad.

Why does this heighten tension? Readers begin to worry when bad things are about to happen to good people. Hint that something’s not quite right, even though, on the surface, life seems rosy.

Physical Jeopardy

If you want more tension in your story, think about places you can expose your character to physical danger. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you show your protagonist getting hurt. Show a child rolling a ball down a driveway. Or, show the character trying to figure out why he’s picking up signals something’s wrong.

Fear of misreading the cues is actually scarier than understanding what you’re up against and dealing with it. You can heighten tension by drawing out the moments before the character understands the nature of the threat.

Too Hot, Too Thirsty, Too Cold

When I think of physical jeopardy, my mind immediately goes to Aleksander Soljienitsin, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. That novella has a great deal to teach us about how a single, physical discomfort–extreme cold–turns the narrator’s life into a series of near misses with death.

The two men [Sbukov, the protagonist, and a guard] left the barracks. The cold made Sbukov gasp. Two powerful searchlights swept the camp from the farthest watchtowers. The border lights, as well as those inside the camp, were on. There were so many of them that they outshone the stars. With the snow creaking under their boots, the prisoners hurried away, each on his own business, some to the parcels office, some to hand in cereals to be cooked in the “individual” kitchen. All kept their heads down, buried in their buttoned-up coats, and all were chilled to the bone, not so much from the actual cold as from the prospect of having to spend the whole day in it.

Add physical discomfort, and your character will fight survival battles on two fronts.

The “What’s Going On?” Factor

If you suspect that your novel’s not tense enough, try to heighten tension by increasing the gap between what “is” and what a character observes. In other words, let the character misread the cues.

In John Grisham’s The Firm, a young lawyer, Mitch McDeere’s new job sounds too good to be true. Things are great at work and great at home with his new wife Abby. As time goes on, however, he starts to notice some funny business: His employers don’t seem to understand the concept of privacy.Grisham's book THE FIRM heighten tension

Mitch begins to snoop around, and he learns about some former employees who were “accidentally” killed.

This doesn’t sound like a super fast start, does it? Life is good. Nothing much happens. We get to know and like Mitch and Abby. But even though his new job seems ideal, we sense trouble.

There’s a disconnect between what Mitch observes and what his bosses would like him to believe is going on. Heightening tension begins with creating these kinds of gaps.

Tension results from the gap between what the character wants and what is.

Heighten Tension by Raising the Emotional Stakes

Most people can figure out how to write a scary scene. The spaceship lands in your backyard. The Loch Ness Monster rears its head while you’re in a fishing boat.

When confronted with immediate danger, most people find a way to deal.

But, have you thought about the many ways ordinary stress can be the very thing that ratchets up tension, even in a thriller?

Think about adding moments of emotional complexity. Raise the stakes, emotionally speaking, by considering how these problems could make your character’s life more difficult.

  • Being criticized unjustly; being misunderstood
  • Embarrassment
  • Guilt (They’ll find out your secret!)
  • Being publicly shamed
  • Doubting oneself
  • Uncertainty (doing something that person has never done before; acting in a way that isn’t their style)
  • Social isolation (feeling like an outsider; feeling shunned)
  • Having to make decisions by yourself
  • Having to please everybody
  • Overstepping physical or psychological limits
  • Time constraints (deadlines; ultimatums)
  • Money worries
  • Anguish over family relationships

Old injuries, psychic wounds, failing marriages, caregiving for a parent, a child with special needs, an innocent spouse, or a parent can add just the right amount of yeast to your story dough. Use the protagonist’s family life as a counterpoint to the imminent threat.

Ethics and Morality

Make ethics and morality part of your character’s dilemma.

In The Firm, Mitch must make a moral choice. Have the character stand on the brink of two bad options: a cop who suspects a trusted partner of illegal activity, for instance. Or, a character who must balance his family’s survival with the need to do what’s legally right. If he does one, he can’t do the other.

Tension is Not Just About Ray Guns

The battle scenes in Star Wars make a very small part of the movie’s run time. Why do we sit on the edges of our seats? Well, the series has a terrific antagonist, Darth Vader, but it also has issues of psychological vulnerability. Luke doubts his ability. The Jedi Warriors face an ethical dilemma: They must fight, but will they sacrifice their last remaining outposts if they lose?

Introduce different kinds of tension as the story progresses. Let your character worry on behalf of someone else. In The Firm Mitch’s plight is made worse by his need to protect his wife Abby.

Pile on the worries. If they’re worried about one thing, add another. Keep turning the prism so that readers see the character under pressure from more than one source.

Combine two, three, or four sources of tension in each scene. That’s good for your plot. One issue can get resolved, but the other can perk along and make us worry.

Your goal is to not just show a character who is tense. You want to induce that feeling in the reader. To do that, pay attention not just to the actions of the plot, but to the psychological complexity of the characters.

2 Responses to “Heighten Tension by Raising the Stakes”

  1. I just read your suggestions for raising tension in revision and appreciate them.

    • These suggestions apply to memoir writers, too. In memoir there’s often a traumatic/dramatic episode we’re trying to get down on the page, but just because the subject matter is emotion-filled doesn’t mean that authors are able to invoke those same feelings of trauma and import to the reader. We memoir writers must do our best to heighten dramatic tension so that readers can fully understand the long lasting effects of trauma.