Tension: Two Easy Ways to Pack Tension in a Scene

Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel about caregiving and ALS. Her short story collection, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, was a finalist in the Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Awards. Her fiction has won Gold and Silver Medals from Readers' Favorites International Book Awards, the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, and many others.

Tension is a sensation in the body. Fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals are hardwired to be on the alert. Possums play possum. An elk herd circles the calves. Octopi retreat into grottoes. Gorillas pound their chests. And, as for humans, what signs of danger raise our hackles? When we see movement out of the corner of our eye, we flinch. If we smell a woman’s perfume on our husband’s shirt, we become suspicious and hyper-alert. At the screech of brakes from the car in front, we slam the brakes.

gorilla, tension, subtext, feelings

I wonder what sensory data this gorilla might be “taking in” from his surroundings? Maybe the blinding sun, the smell of dirty straw, or possibly a heaviness in the shoulders from the death of a mate?   Image from Pixabay via Hans

This “danger data,” gathered from our environment, travels through our nervous system to the most primitive part of our brain—the amygdala. The amygdala takes the information and sends it to the frontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for sorting through the ongoing barrage of perceptions and quickly deciding if this is true danger or a false alarm. If there’s true danger, the adrenal gland fires up, and the brain sends signals down the spinal column to the limbs and stomach. The body goes into “flight or fight” mode. In short, we register danger even before we’re even consciously aware of it.

An Exercise In Writing About Tension

Now what does this mean for writers? In this post I’m going to discuss two ways to create tension. The first involves providing data so that the reader experiences what the character’s experiencing. The second involves showing a character in distress and letting the reader infer that the character’s stressed out and tense. By the way, this is not