Narrative tension is the tension characters in a novel feel about unresolved and unfulfilled events and needs. That’s why it’s so important to suggest a story’s promise in a dramatic context, so that a storyteller creates characters who have a need to act, and to act in spite of obstacles. When characters in a story are blocked from gaining what they want, they experience narrative tension. When acting to gain something increases a character’s pain (because the story/storyteller increases the obstacles) a character in a story experiences increasing narrative tension.
In a nutshell, a storyteller creates a character who can’t refuse to act because of the cost of inaction, but there’s also a price to pay for acting.
Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, is a great example of narrative tension. To act on his love for Juliet is to turn against his clan and family; to not act on his feelings for Juliet is to violate his sense of what’s important to him. But any action he takes increases his pain.
Romeo is a great character because he won’t allow even death to block him from being with Juliet.
A novel (or memoir) that lacks narrative tension fails to be compelling. It can appear to be episodic; events happen, but there’s no tension around an outcome to these events. Characters act, but there’s no tension generated around their actions.
Suggesting tension for characters is only the first step in generating narrative tension. The second step is to write about this tension in a way that it is transferred from a story’s characters to a story’s audience. That’s why the introduction of a story’s promise around an issue of human need is so important. When a story’s audience identifies with a story’s characters and goals, that audience can also be led to internalize tension over whether a character achieves his or her goals.
While a great plot can help hook an audience around finding out what will happen next, when an audience has internalized a story’s narrative tension, that audience needs to experience a story’s resolution and fulfillment for the relief of the tension created by the storyteller.
The greater the tension, the more compelling the novel.
This is why keeping a story’s promise off stage can be so lethal. That lack can lead to weak or absent narrative tension.
Generating narrative tension, then, begins with the opening sentences of a novel or story.
Narrative 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.
When I’ve worked with or talked with agents, a lack of narrative tension is their number one reason for rejecting novels.
Another path into this issue of narrative tension…
What does your main character want as your story opens…
…what blocks him or her from getting what they want?
Externally and internally?
If nothing blocks a character, there’s no drama around the advance of the story. There’s no reason for a character to feel any tension, or a story’s audience to feel tension over a character getting what they want.
Another way to generate tension is to begin a story with a character wrestling with a dilemma (which can be mainly internal or external). If a plot event forces that character to act to resolve their dilemma, the story begins with a question — what will the character do — and moves toward an answer to that question.
If that step resolves the original dilemma, but creates a new, larger problem that requires another step forward, the story continues to advance.
Because of the resolution achieved, the story’s character should go through a shift in feeling.
If a character doesn’t go through a shift in feeling (or understanding), nothing has impacted them. If nothing in a scene impacts a character, it can be hard for what’s happening to impact an audience. The exception, of course, is that the storyteller wants a character to be oblivious while doing something that acts on the audience.
When a character faces a larger, more challenging problem, they should have a new, different state of feeling.
That feeling might be embodied in an action (a character cries, or lashes out, or stammers, etc.) or it might be expressed via dialogue.
This simple process is obvious in the Harry Potter books. When it’s done well (Harry’s world is full of on-going dilemmas), the effect is to pull the audience forward.
The dilemmas in Harry’s world have many faces — Harry wanting to go somewhere with his friends but he can’t because he’s in danger — Harry having many powers but if he uses them to defend himself at the Dursley’s, he’ll risk his powers being taken away.
Many stories I read have action, things happen and things are resolved, but the deeper issue is how to make action compelling.
Just to make this clear, a character can be in conflict with themselves and with something external to them. In The Hunt for Red October, Ramius has seethed his whole life at how the communists have treated his homeland. It’s only with the death of his wife that he can act to resolve that feeling by punishing the communist party (while his wife was alive, he couldn’t act without putting her at risk). To push Ramius even farther over the edge, he blames the communists for the death of his wife due to a botched surgery.
Once that internal tension is established (and occasionally referred to), the story advances mostly as Ramius must outwit the forces arrayed against him. But, the transfer of this internal tension to the audience has already taken place.
An understanding of how popular stories and storytellers create narrative tension can be a great teaching tool.