Weave the Tension Threads

Tension is the lifeblood of plot. I imagine it as a thread that attaches to a reader’s heart or brain and pulls them onward, making them curious or connected to the characters in a way that keeps them committed to the story.

There are many types of threads we can use to pull the reader in, and ideally we are using more than one in a given story. That’s why I mention weaving—the more threads we can use to pull forward, the more likely the reader is to come back to the story after their coffee break.

The first type of thread I like to use is the mystery thread. I also sometimes call this one simply “questions.” In theory, if the reader is asking questions, they will continue reading to answer them. Of course, too much mystery makes a reader frustrated and they may walk away from the story, so like all things this is a careful balance. That said, as long as the writer is grounding the reader in sensory details of the scene and things progress logically (even if that logic is strange and new because the reader is plunged into a different world with different rules), usually readers are willing to suspend disbelief and continue as long as things remain consistent. 

Continuity cannot be stressed enough here, especially in genres like sci-fi and fantasy. That doesn’t mean you have to know all the rules or tell the reader all the rules right off the bat – remember that the mystery of what the rules actually are is one of the threads pulling them forward. Instead, I keep a planning document open next to me as I work and write down important ideas, rules, and characters as they crop up. This helps immensely with keeping things consistent without info dumping on the reader.

It is critical in that short window held open by the mystery thread, to invest the reader in the characters and their dilemma. Affection for the characters is a critical thread that wedds the reader to the narrative, though it doesn’t create tension as much as it gives the characters a place in your reader’s head and heart. We don’t leave people we find endearing or at least interesting and relatable. 

Once you have those two threads in place, now it’s time to actually introduce conflict. If the character’s life is wonderful, there’s no reason to keep reading. We need something exciting happening, preferably as close to the beginning as possible. The plot people call this an “inciting incident” but I think of it as the meat of the story. It’s something critical to the plot that pulls the reader straight into the “oooh, what happens next” mentality. 

Now you’ve hopefully got the reader hooked and you can move into the weaving phase. Here, some new and fun threads come into play. Threads I especially like to pull in here are the romantic subplot and social/political ramifications. Some writers like to put all their eggs in the romance basket, but I feel like it’s strongest as one of multiple threads rather than the one, single tether. That said, it can be a powerful tool for making the reader want to keep going.

Social and political consequences add depth to the characters’ world and open up lots of paths for subplots and side characters to have their own thoughts and lives. Some of my readers’ favorite romances are between two side characters, so don’t forget that those characters have lives and relationships outside of their interaction with the main character(s)!

Like any weaving, it’s so important to keep all alternating these threads around and through each other, so that they all progress logically together and inform each other as a cohesive whole. This goes back to the “every scene must earn its keep” concept—any given scene can further more than one of these threads of tension and the more they address the more powerful the scene. 

That said, also like a physical weaving, sometimes threads come to an end or have a resolution. For example, your couple might be having a fight for a few chapters, and then finally make up with a passionate love scene. If that’s the only thread weaving through their plot, the reader will smile, put down the book and walk away. On the other hand, if there is still political drama happening that remains unresolved, the political thread will pull the reader on despite the resolution going on in the romantic thread. This allows longer stories and bigger arcs, since now our couple has the opportunity for their relationship to encounter more challenges or to deepen over time making us feel even more connected to them.

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