Storytelling

Five Ways to Restore Tension

Getting your audience to the finish line requires bait at every step. That bait is the tension created by your opening plot hooks – problems that need solving or questions that haven’t been answered. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for that tension to drop in the lulls between high-conflict scenes. When it does, your audience might walk away from your work. Use these techniques to insert more tempting bait during those low points.

1. Raise Questions

Most stories have one or more mysteries that will be solved by the end. They could be as simple as the villain’s identity or as complex as how seemingly unrelated events are connected. During the course of your story, your heroes will probably receive clues that move them closer to the answer.

Luckily, the right clues will do more than bring victory closer, they’ll open a new can of worms. Imagine if they…

  • Implicated an ally: The heroes discover that their trusted mentor is the one who set them up.
  • Suggested the impossible: The clue reveals that the message in blood was written before the murder occurred.
  • Presented a new crisis: No one at the office answered the phone because everyone in the building is in a deep coma.
  • Introduced unknown players: The mercenary was hired by a secret organization the heroes have never heard of.

Even if you don’t think your story has a great mystery, look for information your hero hasn’t discovered yet that you can introduce out of context.

2. Complicate Successes

In many stories, the heroes must accomplish a series of goals to earn victory at the end. Unfortunately, navigating a task successfully can make the larger conflict feel trivial, discarding the tension. Some stories, like the TV series The 100, manage to keep the story going while the heroes continually fail their objectives, but that isn’t possible for every plot.

The next best thing is to make successes come at a cost. Perhaps the heroes…

  • Revealed critical information: While infiltrating the enemy base, the heroes left a traceable fingerprint behind. Now the enemy knows who they are and where they live.
  • Lost important assets: The hero had to let their enchanted weapon fall into a deep pit so they could use both hands to save a dangling comrade.
  • Sustained critical injuries: The hero escaped after being stabbed, but now they can’t stand upright or wield their weapon with their dominant hand.
  • Gained new liabilities: Someone was captured during their mission. That person is now being held hostage, which forces the heroes to accommodate the villain’s demands.

These costs should make the audience feel like the heroes are in more danger than before.

3. Accelerate Deadlines

A great tension-inducing device is to add deadlines to the tasks your heroes must accomplish. Nothing kills tension more than letting the protagonist try and fail and try again without punishment. With a ticking deadline, every moment spent on a failed attempt brings the world closer to disaster.

Then when you need an extra influx of tension, your deadline can jump unexpectedly forward. Your deadline might reflect…

  • Dwindling resources: The ship only has enough fuel to last a few days. Then the heroes must accelerate to avoid pursuing enemies, wasting precious fuel.
  • Worsening illnesses: The heroes only have a few days to find a cure that could reverse a deadly disease. Then their loved one takes an unexpected turn for the worse, cutting their time in half.
  • An impending apocalypse: The day of a lunar eclipse approaches. If the hero doesn’t complete a sacred ritual beforehand, demons will enter the realm. Then the hero suffers an injury and wakes up a week later, only a day before the eclipse.
  • The development of a superweapon: The villains are working on a space station that can destroy a planet. The heroes have a plan to destroy it, but it becomes operational ahead of schedule, endangering their mission.

The trick is to make your deadline feel natural. Don’t impose a strict deadline on events that shouldn’t have one. For instance, people can’t usually predict when someone will die of sickness down to the second.

4. Add Ominous Foreshadowing

One of the primary purposes of foreshadowing is to raise tension, tiding your audience over during slow periods. These bad omens can arrive in a wide variety of forms. As long as you have tough times on the horizon, you can foreshadow them.

To be effectively tense, your hint should be menacing and mysterious. I recommend offering enough details to suggest terrible possibilities without clarifying what might happen.

You might show…

  • Enemy plans: The villain smiles as they discuss how the heroes are falling into a trap.
  • Spreading problems: After a desperate struggle, an unnoticed scratch on the hero’s leg radiates eerie tendrils.
  • A warning: A stranger asks, “What have you done?” after hearing the hero proudly mention their latest accomplishment. Then the stranger flees without answering any questions.
  • Possible danger: A shadow slinks after the heroes in the night, growing to menacing heights before shrinking down when they look its way.

Once you insert foreshadowing, your audience will expect something cool to come of it. Don’t forget to follow through.

5. Bear Bad News

A stunning victory by your heroes won’t prevent other parts of the world from crumbling while they’re away. After patting themselves on the back, they might receive a message with unwelcome news.

Because these events happen offscreen, keep them simple and tie them into your plot. You want bad news that…

  • Raises the stakes for failure: A loved one has been captured. Now if the heroes don’t defeat the villain, the loved one will remain a slave.
  • Complicates future plans: An ally with valuable secrets has turned against the heroes. Now the heroes must create a new strategy that their former ally won’t anticipate.
  • Gives the antagonists an advantage: A magical artifact was stolen from the heroes’ hideout. The villains can use it to power their new weapon.
  • Creates conflicting priorities: A hero’s home village is under attack, and now they want to abandon their mission to save their family.

If it’s tied to your plot, the bad news can help increase the conflict in future scenes as well.


Tension is the torch in a relay race of conflicts. When one conflict finishes, have another ready to grab the torch and run.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Sam Beringer

    I dunno about a villain smiling while talking about the heroes falling into a trap. Seems a bit redundant. Now, a villain smiling when they learn that the heroes seem close to accomplishing their goal is a whole different matter.

    • Cay Reet

      Good point. The villain smiling while he/she is supposed to be angry is a sign that there’s more to it. If it seems as if the heroes are winning and the villain is still smiling, that suggests a plot turn is about to be had.

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