This week, we’re answering a voicemail from Bonnie J. Rough, who actually made a guest appearance on Episode 25.

Her question was a great one that many writers (including us) struggle with: how do you make sure you keep the tension rising in the right way over the course of a book or long narrative?

It was a topic we were excited to tackle, to help us out with our own writing, but also because Bonnie asked it.

Y’all gotta understand: Bonnie is legit.

bonnieShe’s the author of Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA, winner of a 2011 Minnesota Book Award.  Bonnie’s writing has appeared in several anthologies, including Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion (Three Rivers Press), The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 1 (W.W. Norton), and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007 (Houghton Mifflin). Her essays have also appeared in many magazines, literary journals, and newspapers, includingThe New York TimesThe SunHuffington Post, The Iowa ReviewNinth Letter, Identity Theory, and Brevity.

All this is to say, Fiction School is flattered that Bonnie called, and we hope our answers somehow possibly perhaps maybe might help her and all of y’all as you’re writing those long books, cranking the tension higher and higher and higher.


To begin, we play the voicemail from Bonnie J. Rough, which you can hear on the show, or read the always hilarious, massively incorrect Google transcription of the question:

bonnie transcript

All we can say is: “In the bill clinton their dad’s house”??? We love you, Google Transcription!

  • We talk about the balance between building tension and overdoing it, to the point where it feels cliche and mechanical and Dunt-dunt-dunnnnn.
  • Tension is also about character; it’s not always about car crashes and spy plots.  Internal conflict drives eDanger - High Tension on former Euston tube stationxternal conflict, but you can have too much of that, too.  Readers have to believe in characters’ problems.
  • We’re told that characters have to have a flaw or have to want something, but that’s not actually enough on its own.  Longer narratives are really about using several kinds of tensions at once.
  • Baker thinks about three different kinds of tensions that can work together: a character’s internal tensions (battles within the character’s internal self); interpersonal tensions (the way the main character interacts with others–maybe they want to kill him with an axe, or maybe they want to be in love, or maybe the boss wants to fire him, or whatever); and then the tensions that come with setting and the external world (these are sometimes elements of the natural world or elements of a larger culture, but they’re not specific people.  They’re the time and place of the story, and whatever pertinent external factors that affect the story, like cultural biases, weather, wars, religious movements, political climate, or other similar elements that aren’t specific individuals).
  • Using white space and letting the tensions simmer in the reader’s mind is pretty effective.
  • Jody gives us a cool technique that screenwriters use, by using notecards and charting the microcosms of conflict, making sure that scene by scene, you’re moving the tension up and down.
  • We break down a scene in Pride and Prejudice where some new information comes in and changes a character internally and affects the interpersonal tension, so the tension keeps rising by adding in a wrinkle–it’s one kind of tension being affected by another.
  • For tension, it’s helpful to think that every story has a central question, and when that central question is answered, the story’s over.  But along the way, there are tons of little yeses and little nos.  Those little yes and no moments are how you build the tension.  You can add more to the character rather than adding more to the scene.
  • This is why road novels and traveling are so common in long narratives, because there’s always new ingredients in each new location, so there are wrinkles and changes to each character’s tension that come naturally.
  • Some narrative nonfiction that works well with rising tension is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, where she’s hiking the Pacific Coast trail.  She was on the hiking journey, but she also had an internal struggle that sent her on the journey, so even nonfiction balances multiple kinds of tension.
  • Multiple narratives can also add tension.  Scenes with different characters and different locations can still speak to each other and add to the overall tension felt by the reader as each scene speaks to the central question of the story.
  • Jody mentions Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat as a way to have checkpoints on the tension level of a long narrative.  The template is helpful to make sure there are moments and marks the story will hit, and within that framework, you can have your own creativity and individual take on the story.
  • And then we open old battles and debates that have been raging since Episode 1, which is now “a sucking chest wound” between Team Jody and Team Tommy.  Ah well.  Cliffhanger for the next episode, eh?

Thanks again, Bonnie, for the voicemail!  If anybody else out there has a topic that we could maul in a show sometime, please give us a call to the voicemail line.  We’d love to hear from you.