Put a Stake In It: 5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories

(Originally published March 1st on LinkedIn by The Story Source.)

A few nights ago, all of us were taken by surprise when La La Land was incorrectly announced as the winner of Best Picture. The mistake was remedied, but Moonlight‘s win was cloaked with intensity.

With the drama of awards season, I started watching clips of Carrie, the Academy Award-winning horror film by Brian De Palma. In the movie, Carrie does all sorts of paranormal and frightening things. But after a few minutes, I started to wonder: What makes the scenes, and the story as a whole, so engaging?

The answer turns out to be really simple: lots of tension.

To help you keep your audience on the edge of their seats, here are “5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories.” You may not win an Academy Award, but you’ll at least never have to watch someone nod off again.

  1. Foreshadow Future Events. Building tension starts shortly after your opening. Once the audience understands the basics of the story (characters, setting and problem), begin building tension by foreshadowing elements of the story that you intend to address later on. The easiest way to do this is to introduce a powerful image – in Carrie, it’s a broken mirror – that offers a clue about the events to come. If your audience suspects that something is awry (i.e. a girl breaks a mirror with her mind), they’ll keep watching.
  2. Subvert Expectations. In order to keep your audience engaged throughout the story, you have to undermine the audience’s expectations and keep them guessing about what’s going to happen next. Here’s a hypothetical scene: a man and a woman are flirting in the elevator of an apartment building. The man eventually asks for the woman’s phone number, but the woman refuses. The man presses her for her number and then all of a sudden a snake comes slithering out of the woman’s shirt. The man screams and runs from the elevator as soon as the doors open. Unexpected, right? All great scenes raise questions about the characters and the situation.
  3. Add Comic Relief. As a storyteller, you can only build so much tension into the narrative before your audience needs a release. The easiest way to do this in stories is to introduce a secondary character who offers insight into the struggle. Consider the earlier example of the snake. Maybe in the next scene of the story we see the woman walking out of the apartment building when a snake slithers out of one of her pant legs. The doorman sees this happen, but instead of screaming and calling the police, he pulls out a live mouse and proceeds to feed the snake.
    Entertaining, right? Good comic relief can momentarily distract the audience while also reassuring them that the storyteller understands the absurdity or tragedy of the narrative.
  4. Introduce Non-Visual Elements. Powerful images aren’t the only way to keep your audience engaged. Sound, smell and touch can be just as evocative (think about theme song from “Jaws”). In Carrie, the sound of locking doors seals the fate of all the students inside while also making the audience curious about what’s going to happen next. The challenge for storytellers is that most stories operate inside a visual medium (even oral stories “paint a picture” for the listener). One way to get around this is to use analogies or metaphors. A good analogy will do wonders.
  5. End with the Unexpected. In all stories, the job of the storyteller is to leave a lasting impression with the audience at the end of the story. The way to do this is often to introduce a new image or offer a final piece of comic relief. At the end of Carrie, the audience sees a hand reaching out from beyond the grave to grab Sue, the sole teenage survivor. The image is chilling and reminds the audience that even though the central problem (Carrie’s revenge) may be resolved, there are other problems that will outlive the story.

Pretty tense, right?

Andrew Linderman
Writer. Teacher. Consultant.

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