Writing Scintillating Scenes––Part V

I’ve talked about tension before, but it’s part of building scenes, so let’s look at it again. We’ll look at both building and releasing tension. Tension brings intensity to a scene and draws the reader in. Click to Tweet #amwriting #scintillatingscenes

Building Tension

Each scene should have elements in it that build, one upon the other to create tension.

  • Withhold information from the reader. The reader should wonder what will happen next, it will draw them in keeps them involved in the story.
  • Introduce questions and then intensifying concerns about the answers. Questions about direction, this path or that one? What is the right decision? How will it affect the rest of the story? Let the characters think about and ask those questions. It will keep the reader hanging.
  • Keep the reader on their toes by tension between characters, leaving the reader to wonder who it will turn out. If the reader is uneasy or nervous about harmonious relationships––all the better.

Releasing Tension

Remember that tension must be released in such a way as to move the story forward. There are both positive and negative ways for tension to be released. Choose whichever fits your scene the best.

  • When the protagonist and antagonist move toward one another in a positive way to resolve tension. If your adversary isn’t a villain, this is one good way to draw out your plotting a bit, unless you use it after the climax.
  • When adversaries step away or defer the conflict. They deflect or retreat from the fight, thereby releasing tension. There are times in your story when you’ll want to do this.
  • When one of the opponents suppresses the issue at hand internally, in order to avoid argument. That breaks tension. There are both good and bad times in your story that this technique could be used. If your protagonist needs to show he/she has control of their temper, that’s good. But if they back away due to cowardice, that’s a different story.
  • When on one of the adversaries has a sudden insight that breaks the tension. One of those “A Ha!” moments. Like, maybe I’m fighting the wrong person, the wrong issue, etc. Or “I’ve thought of a better way.”
  • When opponents escalate the conflict into direct confrontation, possibly violence. Once the first blow is struck, tension begins to release, until one person wins or loses.


  • Read through your scenes in your manuscript and find how each scene builds and releases tension. Identify the source and follow it to conclusion.
  • Two ways in to a tense scene: 1) think of a “terrible moment” –– some predicament the character is in. Then, think backward and figure out how it got to that point. How will he handle it? Will this problem catch the character by surprise, or were they expecting it?
  • Take an “ordinary” scene where there is no apparent problem, then introduce a first hint of a threat. Keep adding another hint, until something happens to put the character in danger. And don’t let the character realize it right away. This is the intersection of the expected with the unexpected.

Keeping tension in your scenes keeps the readers reading. Like a rubber band, tension both pulls and stretches a scene until it’s released. Click to Tweet #amwriting #scintillatingscenes

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