Tension in Short Stories

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Another important element in writing that we focused on in our short stories is the principle of tension. Any good story contains four elements of tension:

  • People with problems
  • People with specific and strong desires
  • High stakes (there are serious consequences if the main characters don’t get what they want)
  • Specific obstacles that get in the way

Can you identify the four elements of tension in the excerpt from the student piece below?

It’s 1:25 am. My family is sleeping while I struggle to even close my eyes. There’s this feeling that’s been bothering me for a while now. How do I explain it — it’s that feeling you get when someone is staring at you intensely. That burning, tingling sensation, the urge to turn around and look. I rise up from my bed, and make a quick observation of my room, dimly lit by the moonlight shining through my window. And of course, there’s no one in here but me. I shake my head in frustration — ”Ah, maybe it’s just sleep deprivation.” As I settle back into the covers, that feeling comes back, much stronger than before. I abruptly sit up, my instincts telling me to look at the window……Are those eyes? I see eyes! I stare at them and they stare back at me. “Nope. Nope. Nope. There’s nothing there, nothing at all.” I break my gaze and rub my eyes, hoping that I’m hallucinating or in a very elaborate dream. Much to my displeasure, the eyes are still there, now accompanied by a smile. I let out a light yelp and dive under the covers, using the pink flower patterned comforters as a shield. Quite threatening, if I do say so myself….I take refuge there for the rest of the night.

People with Problems

The short story is about a girl who encounters a stalker in the night. She later finds out that her stalker is ghost who is somehow relevant to her life. During her morning walk, she meets the same guy, not knowing if he was the stalker or not, until teasing him. She later finds out that he is her stalker. Frightened for a minute, the boy takes his time telling her his reasons. He begins to tell her about a boy who was once in love and how it didn’t work out in the end and how he dies. And how now he still watches over her and her oldest daughter who looks just like her mother. And that’s how their friendship begins.

People with specific and strong desires

In the early life of the ghost boy he was very depressed and lonely. He only wanted a friend. He then finally meets a girl whom he takes interest in; they become very close.

High Stakes

Through the boy’s friendship with the girl, he realizes that he loves his friend. But sadly she has fallen for someone else, which leads him to his death. So now that he’s a ghost he still lingers…

Specific Obstacles That Get in the Way

In the story the boy was in love with his friend, but in return she was in love with someone else. The boy tries to maintain his emotions but when he spots them being affectionate he goes into a depression that leads him to his death.

There are a few things you can do to create and maintain tension in any piece of writing, such as a short story.

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Match Your Opponents

  • What’s more fun to watch? A game that is 108-15? A game that is 13-15?
  • Create the kind of match that you readers will want to stay in triple overtime in pouring rain to see finalized because the sides are evenly matched
  • You want your readers to ask: Who is going to win?
  • You want your readers to ask: How are they going to get from where they are now to that win?

Notice how evenly matched the two conflicting characters are in the following excerpt from a short story:

They are rushing Rosalyn and Deandre back to the emergency room.

Scurrrr!  Deandre parks the car in the Emergency express lane, almost ramming the car into the curve.  He runs over to help Rosalyn out of the car.  Almost busting his head from almost falling on the ice in front of the car,  He opens the door.  “Okay babe. We are here.  Let’s get you inside.  Are you sure you don’t want your coat it’s freezing out here?” he says to Rosalyn.  Contraction.  “No. Just get me into the flippin’ hospital!” says Rosalyn.  I’m sorry baby I didn’t mean to yell at you. I am just in a lot of pain.  I am probably going to be yelling at you the rest of the night.” says Rosalyn.  The nurses come outside with the gurney trying to help Rosalyn get onto it.  “It’s okay babe.  I already knew this was going to happen.” Deandre replies while helping her onto the gurney.  The doors burst open.  People moving to the side as the gurney gets closer to them, like the parting of the Red Sea.  Rosalyn says to Deandre, “Hey babe.  Do you think you can get me an apple?  I am really craving an apple.”  “Babe, aren’t you allergic to apples?” Deandre replies.  The emergency crew gets to the room and immediately get her to a bed.    .

“Now my children.” says God.

“I am leaving you here to tend this here garden.  You may live off of the land, drink the water from the river, and eat the fruits and vegetables off of all of the plants.  However, you may not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil or else you will die.  Now my children, I must leave.  I will return in a couple of days to see how both of you are doing.  And remember!  You may not eat any of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.”

Lightning struck across the sky, God left, and the Earth was calm.  The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a simple apple tree in the center of the garden of Eden.  Although the tree was not the grandest tree of the garden, the tree was most certainly the most appealing to the stomach.  Thanks to the tree’s natural array of beautiful red and green apples, not to mention the ambrosial, delectable smell.

Adam and Eve did as God told them and tended the garden until dusk.  After a hard day’s work, Adam and Eve fell asleep under a tree on the east side of the garden away from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and on the seventh day they rested that night.

The following morning a Serpent slithers to the tree where Adam and Eve are sleeping.  After hearing what God had told Adam and Eve the other day, he decides to persuade them into doing what God told them not to do.  He spots Adam and Eve asleep under the tree on the east side of the garden of Eden.

“Psss!  Psss!  Hey.  Hey you.” says the Serpent.

Eve wakes up from her sleep and sees the Serpent right in front of her.  Eyes are a beating red like

“Who me?” says Eve.

“Yes you Eve.  Good morning!  My name is Lucifer.  I am sorry to have awaken you from your sleep but I must ask you a favor.  Would it be too much to ask you to go get an apple from that tree in the center?  I simply have no arms and legs, so I don’t have the ability to get an apple and I am really hungry.”

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Stay Specific

Generalizations kill tension. Active verbs, specific, concrete nouns, and carefully selected adjectives go a long way towards building and sustaining tension in a story, from the word level. Notice the specifics in the following passage:

 We had to go off the trail, through brambles and trees to find a spot that would not be disturbed. Once we got to the part of the woods where we wanted to bury her, my parents began to take turns shoveling.  In the distance we could hear the faint boom of thunder.  My parents were halfway done digging the grave when it began to sprinkle.  My dad shoveled faster but there was no way we would finish before the storm hit, so my mom, Yoshi and I started back towards the car.  It was quite a long walk and we had to cross over a field to reach the hiking trail.  To make it even more chaotic, Yoshi was terrified of thunderstorms and would not stop whimpering and fighting me to be closer to mom.

The rain began to pour down as we ran past trees dodging prickly bushes.  Yoshi whimpered and moaned.  I wasn’t any too happy either to be running through the wet woods, trying to catch up with my mom.  The two of us fought to get closer to her, Yoshi knocking me into thorns and brambles.  I felt little drops of blood oozing down my bare calves, but I could not stop to inspect them. Yoshi and I continued to struggle as we came out of the woods.

By the time we made it to the field, my clothes and hair were drenched, and I began to shiver.  To reach the trail we had to make it over an upward slope in the soybean field.  The rain had turned the dirt to wet, slippery mud, making our task even more daunting. I kept sliding down the hill, covering my legs with brown slime. Yoshi and my mom were also struggling. I pulled on her shirt, trying to rely on her strength to support me, but it simply brought us both down into the mud.

Lightning struck a little ways away making me jump. I had heard about people out in fields being electrocuted and I was worried that was what was going to happen to us.  I continued to grab onto my mom for support as we slowly made our way up the slope, and Yoshi kept trying to get in between us.

“Stop grabbing onto me!” my mom yelled at me. “You’re pulling us all down!”

I let go crying, “But I can’t make it!”

Stressed with the responsibility of looking after both Yoshi and I, she reassured me and grabbed my arm pulling me up the slope.   Slowly we made our way up to the top, our shoes, socks, and feet all soaked.

Eventually we got to the trail, continuing to run for the parking lot and our car.  By the time we got to the car I was exhausted and out of breath.  My mom, Yoshi and I jumped in and breathed a sigh of relief. Yoshi panted and sat on top of me while Mom  drove on the trail to where we had decided we would pick up my dad.  He wasn’t long getting there. After he had quickly finished burying Sadie, he had put down the grave marker and ran to meet us. He had made the marker the night before, with Sadie’s name and the date she died.

We had neglected to put towels, or anything else to dry ourselves with in the car so I was shivering all the way back to St. Louis.  My legs were covered in cuts from the bushes in the woods and continued to bleed on the way back as well.  Because of the storm, we had not had much chance to do a “proper” funeral ceremony; mom and I had merely said goodbye.

A few years later we would journey to the same woods to bury Yoshi.  We searched for half an hour trying to remember exactly where we had buried Sadie. Just as my dad had given up and starting digging a new grave, my mom wandered away and yelled, “I found it!” There was Sadie’s grave marker, half hidden under leaves. We dug down right next to the marker and buried Yoshi beside his old friend and nemesis.

After Sadie died, Yoshi gradually began to adopt many of her chief characteristics.  Some of these were her love of vegetables, but more importantly her regal attitude.  He was now the spoiled king of the household.  He had gone from poor defenceless puppy to fierce little prince. He was never quite as pushy or demanding as Sadie, but now he knew how to get what he wanted from us. Perhaps living with Sadie all those years taught him how to be fierce in his own way.  Looking back, I believe she may have had the same effect on me.

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Vary the Tension Levels

“Tension is ups and downs, back and forth, tension and the release of tension. This up-and-down is the rhythm of creative writing. Change appeals to our basic need for stimulation. Don’t let your reader adapt. Once she gets the emotional tenor of one line, you have to change it up again. Be thoughtfully unpredictable. Don’t let your piece remain at the same tension level for long.” – Heather Sellers, The Practice of Creative Writing

Notice how the previous passage also varied tension levels:

  • On a scale of 1-5, the first paragraph is about a 4, a family caught in a thunderstorm heading into the woods with a dead dog’s body
  • Second paragraph is maybe a 3, we’re used to being in the rain in the woods at this points, recognize that the character’s aren’t in immediate danger
  • Third paragraph is about remains at a 3/4, the family is in a chaotic situation in the rain
  • Then they reach the car, the tension level drops to maybe a 2.5
  • Then the last paragraph is a summary image looking back, tension drops to maybe a 2 or a 1.5

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Layer Dialogue with Action

“In order to sustain tension in dialogue, it’s useful to remember that dialogue never occurs outside of human action. When we speak, we use our full body, our face moves around, and our arms and gestures and habits punctuate our phrases. We interrupt, we slam the book on the table, we cross our arms, we roll our eyes, scoot our chair back, stroke the arm of our partner – all that is part of the conversation. Dialogue can’t be separated from action, and so action is automatically a crucial part of what is said.” — Heather Sellers, The Practice of Creative Writing

Notice how the following writer layers dialogue with action:

Well, I don’t know how, but I managed to fall asleep and was awakened the next morning by bustling in the halls outside my room — mom and dad loudly chatting while making breakfast, my brother and sister arguing about who will use the bathroom first. A typical morning in our household. I look at my clock, 8:30 am was the time. Good thing today is Saturday; otherwise I’d be screwed, I think to myself while stretching. Then I’m reminded of the events that ensued the night before. I shrug my shoulders and brush the memory off with it was just a dream. I look into the mirror that is parallel to my bed, at my disheveled self. Who would want to peep in on THIS, anyway? I finally got up from my bed and walked over to my computer. Let’s play some morning jams, I thought, but then that feeling came back, and I quickly turn around. Nothing. “Ugh,I need to go wash my face.” I exited my room, to see that Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb were still going at it outside of the bathroom. “Move you roaches!” I said, while shoving them away from the entrance. “Hey, no fair Amelia! Let me in,” Jana shouted from outside the door. Mark had given up, and after a while, she followed suit. I looked into the mirror again before I closed my eyes and splashed cold water on my face. It heightened my senses, and I felt as though I wasn’t alone in the bathroom. But I couldn’t open my eyes — my face was covered in soap, potentially blinding soap. Was it worth the risk? Quickly splashing water onto my face, clearing the soap from my eyes, my lids abruptly popped open, barely catching a glimpse of more than one reflection. “Maybe I got some soap in my eyes…..or I’m going crazy?” I rinsed off what’s left of the facial cleanser, and rushed out of the bathroom. Things were starting to get freaky.

I walked downstairs to where all the commotion was: the kitchen. There I found Mark and Jana back at it again, this time fighting for the largest pancake. In doing so, they knocked the entire plate on the floor. I suddenly lost my appetite. “HEY, you’re gonna eat those!!” mom shouted. Dad wasn’t paying them any attention. I retreated back up the stairs to my room. Closing the door behind me, I scrolled through my Spotify playlist and chose a song. I threw myself onto the bed. Now sprawled out and laying on my back, I heard a light tapping sound coming from the window. As usual, there was nothing there. So I molded myself back into the mattress and closed my eyes to feel the music. I was startled out of my trance by an unfamiliar voice that said “cool song…” Relaxation time was officially over….Why even try at this point? I decided to go for a morning walk, to clear my thoughts and alleviate myself of whatever it is that I’m going through. “Well, isn’t this a beautiful morning? The sun is high in the sky, the birds are chirping, and no little demons (children) in sight. Perfect!” I listened to the sounds of my footsteps against the pavement and soaked in the scenery. Gentle breezes made the leaves rustle in the trees and calmness washed over me, that is, until I heard echoing footsteps. I assumed that it was either my brother or my sister messing with me, so I didn’t feel any urgency to turn around. Instead, I began to walk faster, and my stalker picked up speed. Getting more and more agitated by the second, I came to a halt, turning sharply on the balls of my feet. There was someone there, but it wasn’t Mark or Jana. I didn’t know who this guy was; I’ve never seen him a day in my life. I glared at him, and the stranger wore a look of confusion. “Hey! You!” He looked around as if we weren’t the only people out there, “Yeah, I’m talking to you! Why are you following me,huh?!”.Now with a bewildered expression, he said to me, “What? I’m not following you.” Thick with sarcasm, I responded, “Oh, so it was just a coincidence that you were trying to keep up with me?” “…..Maybe?” I sighed heavily, utterly done with this day that had just begun, and this guy that I had just met. “Dude, are you lost? I haven’t seen you around before. Are you new to the area? If that’s the case, all you had to do was ask me for help, instead of being a creeper.” “Well, okay. Do you mind showing me around?” I decided that I had nothing better to do than to tell him to follow me. It was now 9:30 am. This was gonna be a long day.




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