Our Editors' Advice on Creating Narrative Tension


There are stories that you can’t put down, and there are those that you can’t wait to put down. The difference? Often, it comes down to tension. What’s pulling the readers through, hurtling them headlong toward the gripping conclusion? If your story isn’t quite grabbing readers, these insights from our editors might shed light on why, and how to fix it.

kathy.jpgKathy Pories, Senior Editor:

“I like to think of narrative tension as something that holds a novel together; it’s like the engine under the hood. And really, tension is borne of out mystery. I don’t edit mysteries as a genre, but I do think that all successful stories are powered to some degree by what you don’t know — yet. Sometimes when there is a problem with tension, I’ve found that the book is starting in the wrong place, maybe telling us too much right off and that finding that “right” place introduces mystery and, therefore, tension into the story. That can often mean cutting a good portion of the opening or rearranging scenes so that so much isn’t revealed too early into the book. In those novels that are more tightly focused on characters, the source of tension is within the character: Why would he do such a thing? How could he ever think like this? But the principle is the same: the longer you can delay the answer, or at least some part of the answer, the more you can raise the tension.

“As for maintaining it throughout a manuscript, you really have to look long and hard at every scene and decide whether it’s there because you like that scene or whether it’s helping to build the narrative tension. When I think of the famous phrase, ‘kill your darlings,’ I tend to think it’s not just the sentence you love that has to go but the beautifully written scene that isn’t really playing into the story, either in the narrative sense or thematically. Always, though, you are trying to tease your reader through the whole story, so I often suggest that the writer delay the discovery of answers or information. The sooner you show your cards, the less reason the reader has to keep going. Make your reader agitated! But in a good way.”

Amy_Gash_photoAmy Gash, Senior Editor:

“In nonfiction narratives, sometimes I’ve advised authors to give more prominence to a secondary character so there is more tension between characters and the reader can follow that thread — getting involved in the characters as they play off each other. Sometimes it’s a matter of cutting (usually in the beginning) to get to the meat of the story quicker. In effect it’s the pacing that was causing the lack of tension. Other times it’s figuring out what not to reveal right away so even if the reader knows the basic story in nonfiction, there will be some suspense achieved in the narrative. And for nonfiction, honestly, sometimes it’s hard to find the tension throughout the arc of the whole book, and the only way to do it is for each chapter to be its own short piece in a sense. So forget the tension of the book as a whole and just work with the author to make each chapter thoroughly intriguing. Almost like a connected book of short stories or essays.”

Medium_ChuckChuck Adams, Executive Editor:

“Very often the lack of tension in a story derives from the way it is written rather than the subject line. When I am editing a manuscript with an eye toward quickening the pulse, I typically work to pare down the prose as much as possible, making it lean and direct. Overly complicated sentences and rambling descriptions work against building tension. What we need to strive for is a sense of urgency, making the style of the prose match the mental state of the person we are following. For some writers, that means using short sentences, staccato phrasing, quick shifts in a character’s interior thought patterns. I was recently editing a novel dealing with someone on the run from authorities, but the character kept stopping to enjoy and admire the beautiful scenery. The writing was uniformly strong, and the descriptions quite nice, but they worked against the sense of urgency that the narrative needed at that point so I cut whole paragraphs to give the reader more of a sense of how frantic the character was to get away. This is probably the most common way to deal with the problem of weak tension.”

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3 comments on “Our Editors' Advice on Creating Narrative Tension

  1. Thanks to Kathy Pories, Amy Gash, and Chuck Adams. A reader shouldn’t be aware of the technical underpinnings, but they should feel it. These are helpful tips and reminders!

  2. Chuck Adams reminds of our UNC Journalism Professor Ken Byerly ( 1960s ) who taught
    “Boil the fat out of the copy”.
    When This Professor followed Ken at UNC, I devised writing diagnostics that I taught, and use to
    Edit my prose.
    Who should I contact about submitting a “how to write better” manuscript ?
    UNC Professor Emeritus A. Richard Elam, PhD ( UNC ’72 )

  3. Thanks to all three of you for the perspectives and insights! I’d like to especially thank Amy Gash for her observation that sometimes, the tension in narrative nonfiction is NOT always a matter of structuring the entire story into one, long, sustained arc, but crafting intrigue and mystery and satisfaction within each chapter. (That said, it’s also essential that each chapter makes you want to read the next!) It is heartening to hear an editorial sensibility more encompassing than the “make it read like a novel” admonition — which isn’t everyone’s mantra, to be sure, but one that feels unnecessarily limiting. Full disclosure: I write both essay and memoir. (I would write short stories, as well, if not for the handicap of being terrible at making things up.)

    I love using scene & dialogue in all my nonfiction, but am also addicted to the further adventure of stepping outside the narrative, a bit, looking back at it with skepticism, self-doubt, a less naïve view or appreciation of the absurdity I didn’t experience at the time- basically to shake it around every which way to see what else can be made to fall out of it. You know – the mulling and pondering and wondering part. (Show AND tell).

    So truly — thanks — you’ve made my day. And the day of anyone who reads, in part, for the intrigue of getting to watch the ways someone else’s mind moves. (Plot of The Death of the Moth: a bug dies. Oh, yeah, and there’s all that stuff about life force and mortality, too…)

    Three cheers for Algonquin – long may y’all wave.

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