Posted by: nancycurteman | March 30, 2013

What is Tension in a Novel?

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What is Tension in a mystery novel? Tension is that element in a novel that evokes emotions such as worry, anxiety, fear and stress on the part of both the reader and the characters in a novel. Bill Johnson provides a great analogy that emphasizes the importance of tension: “…tension can be compared to an electrical current that runs through a story. The weaker the current, the less a story transmits to an audience. The greater the current, the greater the involvement of an audience.”

At first the idea of tension seems a bit abstract. We all know it when we experience it, but putting the definition of tension into words requires some thought. Let’s look at a few of the attributes of tension. Tension is

anticipation of conflict. The reader and the characters know a problem is on the horizon.

changes that impact the novel’s characters. Changes that become more dire as the story progresses. No sooner is one obstacle conquered than another one crops up.

a series of unexpected events or revelations. Often the events surprise the reader and the protagonist. Sometimes the reader knows about the event but the character doesn’t. This adds to reader tension.

torment. The protagonist must suffer both internal and external agony. The obstacles your character has to face must continually increase in difficulty until he’s pushed to his absolute limits.

secrets. Character must have needs, painful past experiences and skeletons in his closet that precipitate his reaction to events.

dialogue. Not just idle conversation, but as Morrell puts it, “…conversation’s greatest hits.” Dialogue that is a power struggle where there is a winner and a loser.

subtext. Unspoken thoughts, fears, anger and motives of characters—what they really think, feel and believe.

ebbs and flows. There needs to be variations in the levels of tension throughout the story in order for readers to relax and prepare for the next jolt of stress they’ll experience.

a sense of urgency. If the protagonist does not act soon they are doomed.

These are some of the attributes of tension. The author’s job is to figure out how to produce them in her story.

More writing tips:

9 Ways to Create Tension in a Mystery Novel
Interior Dialogue: A Great Tool for Mystery Writers
Dialogue: Body Language Communicates More Than Words

Photo: theaccountabilitysolution



  1. Good stuff, here, Nancy. In my opinion, tension should be evident within the first page, even the first paragraph, and perhaps in the first sentence. Hooking the reader with a reason to turn the page pays off!


    • Broadly speaking, tension is the threat of the unknown.


      • This is especially true in a mystery. Sometimes the threat is known by the reader but not by the protagonist. Result: tension


    • You’re right. The sooner you raise the reader’s level of concern, the sooner they’re hooked.


  2. Yes! And behind it all, the author MUST make us care about the characters or we won’t be hooked (and reeled in) by the tension. 😀


    • Caring about what happens to characters is critical. If the reader doesn’t care he won’t experience tension when the character is at risk.


  3. […] on the part of both the reader and the characters in a novel. (Nancy Curteman Global Mysteries It’s the threat of the unknown. Anticipation of Christmas morning. All that stuff. Get […]


  4. Reblogged this on CJ Warrant and commented:
    Check out Nancy Curteman’s Blog about Tension!


  5. […] movie has no tension, the undercurrent of electricity that makes us care, worry for the characters, and squirm in anticipation. Which provides a pretty […]


  6. this helps alot but what do they mean when they say creating tension


    • An author creates tension in readers by setting up dangerous obstacles for the protagonist, e.g. a bomb set to go off in 15 minutes in a building, a character has a broken leg and can’t move out of harms way while the protagonist is frantically searching for a way into the building.


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