Q&A

How Much Tension Is Too Much?

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Hello again.

I’ve read a lot about how tension and drama should always get more and more intense as the story goes on, but isn’t there a risk to do too much? To induce public apathy by having the readers think the situation is just getting hopeless?

Basically, how can I keep tension and adversity getting bigger while making sure the public keep believing my heroes still have a chance? And without divulging how the story will end, of course…

-Thomas

Hey Thomas, great to hear from you again!

You’re right that it’s possible for a story to get too tense. There are two main ways to think about this.

The first is from a zoomed out perspective on pacing. If your story is all tension all the time, then the reader has no chance to catch their breath, and the story gets exhausting. That’s why the best stories introduce moments of calm between the rising action. The general trend is still up, but it’s not just a straight line; there are dips and curves.

An easy example of this is in Star Wars: A New Hope. When our heroes finally reach the rebel base, they have a moment to pause, catch their breath, and prepare for the next battle. They earned this rest by escaping from the Empire. The Death Star is clearly still a threat, so the tension remains, but it isn’t constantly going up. Once the audience has had a chance to rest, the big space battle begins.

I don’t have an exact equation for how often these breathers should take place, but a general rule is that they should follow the conclusion of some major conflict within the larger throughline. That’s why we say that Your Plot Is a Fractal. Once the heroes defeat a villainous lieutenant, or flee from an unwinnable battle, they’ve earned a moment of rest.

The other way to think about too much tension is in terms of agency. If the antagonist is overwhelmingly powerful, it will seem like the heroes can’t possibly succeed no matter what they do, and at that point the story gets boring. It either feels pointless, or the reader is just waiting for the twist that will show how the hero actually does have a chance after all.

To see this problem in action, I recommend His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. It’s a great book for the most part, but at the end, we’re told that the villain is about to invade with an unstoppable army. There’s nothing our heroes can do; they just have to wait for the end. This makes the ending into a dismal snoozefest. What’s the point of reading if the hero is so thoroughly doomed? Of course, a savvy reader will realize there’s bound to be some twist coming, which there is, but then it’s just a matter of waiting for it.

The takeaway is that while it’s good for the protagonist to be against tall odds, they should still have some chance at victory, even if it’s very slim. Moments of despair where there’s no hope at all should be kept brief; otherwise, they just get boring.

A few posts that you might find useful on this topic:

Hope that answers your question!

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    As Oren wrote, make sure you don’t have the tension on the rise from start to finish (unless it’s a short story, that’s okay). Usually, you have some smaller conflicts before the big showdown at the end and after those it’s fine to give both your characters and your readers a bit of a break. You can fill those breaks with other stuff. Perhaps your characters need to take care of their wounds after a fight or they need to find information and hole up in a library (or a hacker’s den). That will allow both your characters and your readers to relax a little and the next rising tension (topping the last one) will be more effective.

    How much tension is too much? That’s hard to say, but if you never give it a break, it’s likely that your readers will at some point not be able to care more for the fate of the characters and raising tension above that point will not do anything.

  2. Dave L

    You may also want to read the posts about light stories. In a light story the tension can and usually should be lower than something much darker

  3. Jenn H

    Low tension moments are also useful to help expand worldbuilding and develop characters. As well as giving the reader a breather, it lets them know more about the setting and people and give them more of a reason to care about them in the high tension moments later.

    Low-stakes conflicts can be useful if you want more uncertainty in your plot. If the fate of the world is on the line, the heroes will likely succeed or there won’t be a story anymore. But if it is the fate of one town, it is more likely the heroes will fail, as the story can still continue if the town is destroyed.

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