Do It Again With Feeling

As an actor those are words you never want to hear because it means you’re not doing your job, you’re not performing the scene with enough emotion to make it feel real to the audience. As a writer we’re susceptible to the same mistake. Except it’s not necessarily our characters that might not feel real. It can just as easily be the conflict itself.

I realize that it may sound strange for a story’s conflict to be the thing that makes it real and interesting. It’s the reason we turn the page. We have to know if Harry Potter defeats the villain of the month! But if the conflict itself is only half of the equation. The other half — the half that makes it feel real and creates the tension — is how the conflict affects the characters internally.

Every action has an opposite and equal reaction is just as true in physics as it is in fiction. In a fight scene, when the villain throws a punch at the hero, if the hero doesn’t react, either by dodging or being knocked back by the blow when it connects, it’s not believable. Likewise if the young heartthrob dumps the heroine for no good reason. If the heroine doesn’t run away crying or punches them in the face (my personal favorite) then the whole scene falls flat. Without the reaction it’s like it didn’t happen at all. And the reaction doesn’t have to be physical. I’ll use the same examples again to illustrate what I mean. When the not-so-happy couple breaks up, their emotional reaction is just as important as the physical one that follows. Is the heroine angry? Is she in disbelief? Is her heart broken? Is the heartthrob sad? Are they defensive? Impatient? In shock that they’re about to get punched? It’s the same thing in the fight scene. Is combatant A frightened of their opponent or are they confident that they’ll win?

All of this detail isn’t just to fill out the scene and make it breathe. It also increases the tension in your story. All of that description and reaction takes time and that’s time in a critical moment of the story where your readers are waiting for big punch. All the while you’re bringing them deeper into the character’s mind. That punch isn’t being thrown at a stranger, it’s being thrown at them.

It continually amazes me how adding depth can solve so many problems at once. I almost want to call it the Swiss Army knife of writing. Granted, like any tool it helps having some experience using it. I mean you can’t cut cheese with a corkscrew…though it would be fun to watch someone try. Adding the wrong emotion or reaction will do more damage then good. But avoiding that pitfall is a subject for another day.

A Good Old Fashioned Dogpile

My favorite currently airing comedy is Brooklyn Nine-Nine. If you haven’t seen it, think 30 Rock but set in a police precinct in Brooklyn. My wife and I are wrapping up a rewatch of the previous seasons, and during one episode the other day I got inspired for where to take my post in a month about tension. Comedic tension has a different emotional affect upon the audience than dramatic tension, but many of the core mechanisms at work are the same.

During the episode, NYPD detectives Jake and Amy offered to dog-sit for Captain Holt, the stern-but-lovable head of their precinct while he was flying overseas. His dog-sitter was forced to cancel (because plot), and they didn’t want him to miss his trip. The only problem was they were already supposed to be looking after fellow detective Charles, who had received laser eye surgery and was therefore temporarily blind, so they brought him along with them. Hijinks ensue, namely that, after nearly starting a fire and leaving the front door open to let the house air out, the detectives allow the dog to escape, and Captain Holt is alerted to the smoke alarm via his home monitoring system and calls from the airport saying he’s coming back.

Big, broad comedy, in other words. Capably written (and acted in the case of filmed content), this sort of scenario, where the bad news just keeps piling up and up and up into an ever-more-improbable mountain of trouble, can be very effective. There’s certainly nothing revolutionary about the technique, but there’s a reason this sort of thing is done so frequently in storytelling.

Jake and Amy call in the rest of the detectives (at least the ones with major speaking roles in the show) and they all set about trying to find the dog and fix the house, while another character attempts to stall Captain Holt. Jake and Amy, in the course of looking for the dog, manage to lose Charles (still blind) as well. It’s the most basic tension-raising technique there is: put the heroes in a difficult situation and turn up the heat. So why even write about it here?

Well, because care must be taken. Remember up there when I said “ever-more-improbable?” That improbable bit can work for a comedy shtick bordering on farce, but if there’s any verisimilitude to your world, particularly in the case of dramatic tension, playing too fast and loose with endlessly ramping up the challenges your heroes face can totally wreck your reader’s suspension of disbelief.

This can manifest itself in a couple of ways. The first involves the sum total of the problems the characters face. I’ve heard advice to the effect of “put your characters in a situation where the reader can’t imagine how they could ever get out of it.” While doing this can make the eventual solution all the more satisfying, definitely make sure you can imagine how they’ll get out of the situation.

An example I like to come back to involves the main villains in the Mass Effect trilogy of video games (spoilers). The Reapers are a race of immense, spacefaring machines which wipe out intelligence organic life in the Milky Way every 40,000 years or so. In the first game, a single Reaper, left as a vanguard, is able to overcome a substantial portion of the combined might of the galaxy’s fleets, and even then is only defeated when the player character is able to deactivate its defensive shielding. As the entire Reaper fleet, which makes its full appearance in Mass Effect 3, is hundreds or thousands strong, the idea that the remnants of the galactic fleet, still in recovery from the previous battle, could defeat them would be a ludicrous nerfing of the threat, (kind of like what eventually happened to the Borg between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. Readers expect and even require a certain degree of heightened reality, especially in genre fiction, but there are limits. Aware of this, I was fully expecting some kind of secret Reaper-destroying superweapon to come into play in Mass Effect 3, and I was not disappointed in that prediction (though plenty of other people were).

In summary, make your character’s problems seem insurmountable, but not actually be insurmountable, unless you are going for a whole George R.R. Martin vibe.

The second problem of stacking problems for your heroes is trickier to manage, because it has to do with how many problems can stack before suspension of disbelief fails. Another piece of advice I’ve heard is that you can use coincidence to create problems but never to solve them. But I believe even this has limits, and unless being the literal most unlucky person in the universe is your character’s super power, tread carefully. As with many things, proper set up is key. Just as solutions shouldn’t come from nowhere, problems should be foreshadowed whenever possible. This carries a bonus feature for eagle-eyed readers of building additional tension, Chekhov’s Gun style. This can be blatant, in the form of antagonist or villain POVs, or more subtle, some minor but nagging issue the protagonist doesn’t have time to deal with right now because they’re so busy saving the world. The best advice I can offer for how to pick your problem piles is the same as Brandon Sanderson likes to use to describe the best plot twists: “surprising yet inevitable.”

Sometimes the old ways are best. Just because a technique has been done a million times doesn’t mean it can’t be done well–or that it can’t be done poorly. But do the work upfront and think through the ramifications of your pile of tension, and you’ll reap the reward in your reader’s sweat.

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (, his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.


Creating Tension in Mysteries

Mysteries are puzzles to be solved. Inherent in that puzzle is the expectation of tension created by the anticipation of a sympathetic sleuth’s ordeal and the promises made by the writer. There are a few points to be kept in mind to create tension in a mystery.

A good mystery writer incites anxiety, stress, dread, worry, speculation, fretting, and curiosity. Experiencing those emotions is what makes a story a page turner. How is this done? By creating sympathetic characters, characters to cheer for, and then throwing in mini-conflicts, obstacles, failures, and reminding us what’s at stake for the protagonist. It can be as simple as personal pride, a need not to be a failure, or as grand as a family member held as hostage. Or, if they know the plan such as a schedule, or if characters reveal an agenda or secrets and the clock is ticking on those, the reader thinks they know what to expect but something gets screwed up, or the plans happen in a manner which propels the story and tension is created.

Characters who are care and can be cared about hook the reader emotionally. When readers care, they perceive tension when information is with held because they are empathizing and sympathizing. They want answers as much as the sleuth does. They worry knowing that the murderer lurks around the corner and the protagonist is headed right for him. Or, it’s about the presumed impact, abstract consequences in which the reader’s anticipation of what could happen escalates. Danger approaches, the sleuth is in peril and tension builds as the reader worries for the sleuth. Tension , however, isn’t all about action scenes. It can also be about the promise of danger.

The promise of danger is equally if not more effective than action itself. The moments between promises, the waiting, not knowing creates tension in mysteries. The false hopes of an answer – that red herring – an answer to a promise which bore no fruit, all of these create tension. As a writer you must ask yourself what you can promise that will go wrong? The rule about promises and action is this: anticipation creates tension while action is payoff and deflates tension and reader attention. Have you ever watched a movie, a television show or read a book where the sexual tension between two characters is high? Create a situation where they consummate that tension and poof! it is gone for the reader too. That is also true of answering the big questions, solving the big pieces of the puzzle too soon.

Red herrings in mystery work because they don’t answer the big questions – they create more. The reader anticipates the conflict, the reasons for a the red herring’s actions, and the tension mounts because we really don’t know the truth, just that so much is implied. Then, we learn that the herring is red, the criminal is on the loose, the clock still ticks, and the mystery still is unresolved. It’s all part of a mystery’s story structure: creating clues that indicate one or more suspects, include red herring clues and suspects, lead the sleuth down specific paths in the maze of the investigation and eventually redirect the sleuth to the criminal. This structure is a framework for creating tension.

Tension in a mystery isn’t created by merely mentioning the crime or the criminal in the beginning, or by asking the great unresolved question in the beginning and then forgetting about it. The reader needs to be reminded, forced back to that unresolved question – what if the criminal isn’t captured? What if the lost jewels aren’t returned? What if? What if? How upsetting will it be if the sleuth loses?

Not answering questions immediately creates tension and in a mystery there are many opportunities for this. Sometimes a question needs to be answered quickly to propel a story forward. The path of the red herring was a dead and in the maze of the puzzle, so we must explore another path. Remember this rule though: If a question is answered immediately, it’s a small surprise with a small payoff. If it’s stretch out over several pages or chapters, it must have a big surprise with a big payoff. Put another way – each time a question is asked, a promise is made. Each time the stakes are raised a promise is made. Readers need you to deliver on those promises. If it’s the biggest crime of the century, then the payoff for the sleuth must be big. And, it can’t be predictable. Readers think they know what will happen, but they want to be surprised by the answer. Knowing that you will deliver on the surprise also creates tension because it leaves readers wondering what will happen next.

An effective, yet seldom talked about tool to create tension, is for the writer to know the antagonist intimately. In a mystery, the antagonist creates the inciting incident, the sleuth reacts, and then they escalate their reactions and actions. Toss in additional obstacles created by others, family, bosses, coworkers, the justice system, and we’re left wondering if our sleuth will succeed or fail.

Tension is also created when a protagonist cares about something other than just the mystery at hand – the son with the unsuitable fiancé, a homeless person, a pet, or a friend’s crisis. Any of these can conflict with and impact the sleuth’s ability to solve the greater mystery. Multiple conflicts lend themselves to a protagonist’s personal theme – we all know that patterns exist in our lives, we’re attracted to the same messes, we have a limited set of skills to approach them – choices must be made and through those decisions and actions, characters reveal themselves. More importantly, multiple conflicts lead to subplot which affects the sleuth and impacts the sleuth’s ability to solve the crime.

Sympathetic characters, a myriad of suspects, conflict both personal and professional, an antagonist who raises the stakes, promises and payoffs, and unresolved questions, these are the staples of creating tension in mysteries.


If you pull on an object with a rope, the rope will stretch slightly (often imperceptibly). This stretch in the rope will cause the rope to be taut (e.g. under tension) which allows the rope to transfer a force from one side of the rope to the other.

We’ve all seen movies or read books that had us either figuratively or literally sitting on the edges of our seats. Those crazy action sequences where you can’t see a way out for the hero, or the moment when the love interest has to come clean about lying to the heroin in order to win her heart, or that breathless heartbeat right before the couple’s first kiss.

As a writer, your reader’s emotions become ropes, and your story the force pulling on them. Not pushing, but pulling. Drawing them in, keeping them wondering how the guy can date two women on the same night and get away with it, or watching as the characters step farther and farther into the haunted mansion.

I remember reading Fellowship of the Rings for the first time. It was early in the morning and I was in my creepy basement on the treadmill. I only turned one light on so I could read while I walked. This particular morning I found myself in the section of the book where the fellowship enters the Mines of Moria. The prose is of course beautiful, the language masterfully chosen to set the air of fear, suspicion, and abandonment.

By the time the party reaches the room where Balin made his last stand, I was on the edge of my seat. They find the book and begin to read about how the dwarves were overwhelmed by the orcs. Then the drums begin.



My heart was pounding far faster than it should have been, and I kept turning the speed up on the treadmill.

Seriously, I was practically running. It was at that moment I understood what an author could make a reader feel with tension. How Tolkien slowly pulled on that rope, tightening it with each page while at the same time giving the characters just enough hope to keep them going.

This month we’ll be sharing some of the ways to put tension into stories. From romantic to action. There will be something for everyone. Stick around, it’s going to be good.