October 7, 2010

Story Tension: Real vs. Fake

Worried Woman

In my last post, we had a lively discussion in the comments that prompted me to think about things authors do  to trick readers.  Some of these are good and some of them I call “cheap author tricks”.  What makes the difference?  Whether or not the trick is faked.

We love surprise or twist endings when they follow naturally from what has already been stated in the story.  If there was foreshadowing or a brief mention of some detail to let us know this surprise outcome was a possibility, we admire the storyteller for keeping it a surprise even though we should have seen it coming.  However, if the surprise turns out to be that the main character was an alien—and no aspect of the story was sci-fi and no clues were given—we’d feel cheated.

How could we possibly have guessed that?  And why wouldn’t we have gotten a clue the whole time we were in the main character’s point of view?  Because the author purposely withheld that information just to trick the reader.  Cheater.

Similarly, stories that force us to turn the page are great.  The best page-turners keep us up past our bedtime because we can’t put down the book until we find out what happens.  Most authors strive to write such stories, but the problem comes in when they cheat to create that story tension.

What Makes a Story a Page-Turner?

According to the dictionary, tension is a situation or condition of hostility, suspense, or uneasiness.  That definition works pretty well for story tension too.  Story tension is when a gap exists between what character wants and what they have, when the reader finds the story questions interesting enough to want to get to the answer, or when the reader is worried about the outcome of the story.

All of those things create a desire in the reader to keep reading.  If something about the characters, setting, dialogue, etc. clues the reader into the fact that something is wrong or off kilter, the reader wants to keep turning those pages to feel the sense of resolution.  Notice that story tension doesn’t have to be about a big suspenseful dun, dun, dun kind of moment, but a general, even subtle, sense of unease simmering below the surface of the words.

Literary agent Donald Maass says stories should have tension on every page, and he’s talking about this type of story tension.  He calls it micro-tension and described it in an interview as:

In dialogue, it means disagreement. In action, it means not physical business but the inner anxiety of the point-of-view character. In exposition, it means ideas in conflict and emotions at war.

Notice that he does not say: It means purposely withholding information from the reader.  In real life, that would be called a little white lie, or just plain lying.  It doesn’t play out any better on the page.  We do feel that the author cheated if they do this.

I read a story where a woman was in the process of divorcing a “bad man” and had gotten involved with a “good man”.  Right at the end of the book, the good guy jumps into a river to save the bad guy from drowning.  The good guy is pulled under the water.  End of story.  Oh look, an epilogue.  While we’re in the woman’s point of view, she visits the cemetery with her husband (no name given) and she’s talking about how sad she is about the death (no name given).  In the last paragraph, the author finally allows the woman to reveal that her husband is the good guy and they’re visiting the grave of the bad guy.  Cheater.

The author was so desperate to create tension they faked it.  I can’t be the only reader that despises this trick.  Real tension comes from the story and the characters, not the author forcing the characters to withhold information.  Real tension is organic—not manufactured.  And most importantly, real tension is satisfying for the reader, while fake tension is not.

Can you think of other examples of fake tension or twist endings?  Does it irritate you as much as it does me?  What are your favorite page-turning books with real tension?

Comments — What do you think?

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Roni Loren

Yes, that definitely drives me mad. My other pet peeve for fake tension is when two characters in a romance are arguing just for the sake of arguing. There’s no real conflict, just bickering, and if they stopped acting like two-year olds could just move on and be happy.


Great post, Jami!

I love it when the conflict is real. When the stakes are high and the characters are emotional and – and, the reader is sitting on the edge of their seat shouting down at the page – say it! Now’s your chance! Tell him/her! That’s when you know you have a good hook into the good romance/good conflict vibe.



Fake tension used as padding never works.
Donald Maas’ books are great resources for writers and editors


[…] yes, I know, I railed on faking story tension in another post.  But this is a different kind of faking it.  This type we all do, as it’s […]

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