Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.09: Unpacking the Tension

For the next several episodes we’ll be talking about tension. That may seem like a lot of time to spend on just one word, but as we unpack that word we see that there’s plenty of material to work with, and there’s a generous supply of tools in that material.

For our purposes, we’ve categorized the tension subcategories as follows:

  • Anticipation
  • Juxtaposition
  • Unanswered Questions
  • Conflict
  • Microtension

Your own taxonomy may differ, and that’s fine, but having a taxonomy is important because when we name our tools we’re better at using them.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: In this episode we covered five types of tension: Anticipation, Juxtaposition, Unanswered Questions, Conflict, and Microtension. Look at your current WIP (or something that you are reading) and identify examples of each of these.

Thing of the week: Dark One: Forgotten, by Brandon Sanderson & Dan Wells.
This will be featured in an upcoming “Deep Dive” episode.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: What drives a story? Tension! So what kinds of tension are there? Anticipation, juxtaposition, unanswered questions, conflict, and micro-tension. Tension is emotional, it requires engagement. Narrative tension is what the characters feel, contextual tension is what the readers feel, and they don’t have to be the same. Anticipation, expectations about how we think things are going to go. Juxtaposition, contrasting expectations and actually how things go. Unanswered questions, mystery, but also other levels. Cold start horrible situation, then back off to earlier, making us wonder what happened. Mystery box storytelling, what’s in the box, what’s the solution to the puzzle. Do a question and answer quickly to build trust with the audience. Anticipation is expecting an outcome, while unanswered questions, where you, the reader, don’t know the answer. Micro-tension is smaller tensions, often lower stakes. 

[Season 18, Episode 9]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Unpacking the Tension.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] We are going to be spending the next several weeks talking about tension. I’m going to go ahead and frame this a little bit, because as we were trying to set the season, we each brought something that we have been struggling with a little bit or a new toolbox that we’ve been noodling with. Erin and I happen to have simultaneously just taught a class on tension. So she’s going to be chiming in here in a moment. But I want to start explaining what’s going through my head with this. So, we are often taught that a story must have conflict. I think that actually what drives a story is tension, but that conflict is the easiest form of tension to teach. I started thinking about this while I was reading Japanese literature, which often does not have any visible conflict, but there’s a ton of tension. It really solidified for me while I was watching Ted Lasso. Slight spoilers here, but when you look at… Watch the Christmas episode of Ted Lasso, there’s no villain. Everyone is being kind. There’s no conflict. All of the conflict comes from this anticipation of something that you think is going to go wrong. For instance, at the beginning of the Christmas episode, he’s watching It’s a Wonderful Life and he’s drinking, so, obviously, the next thing that’s going to happen is he’s going to go on a bender, and he’s going to have a dream sequence. None of that is what happens. But they so clearly signpost it that it builds this tension, and then you get this release… So, what I want to talk about is looking at some different types of tension. So we’re going to kind of give you an overview, and then for the rest of the episodes, we’ll be digging into each type of tension. So. I’m going to break them down, and then let other people talk. The types of tension that I am identifying as I am attempting to build this toolbox are anticipation, juxtaposition, unanswered questions, conflict, and then micro-tension. Erin, on the other hand, is building… Is constructing a tension toolbox in a different way.

[Erin] Yeah. I will say that one of the things I love about tension, just to start, is that tension is emotional. Just the word tension feels more emotional than conflict. I think it’s an amazing reminder that you need some sort of engagement with the thing in order to be tense. If you don’t care, you won’t be tense. I think sometimes because we think a lot about conflict, people will open a story or a novel or a movie with a conflict that we haven’t bought into. So we’re not feeling the tension. We just see the conflict. Like when you have a little… Your two dinosaurs, as a kid, and you have them fight. The two dinosaurs are fighting with each other, but why? Does anyone care? So, to me, tension is a lot about building in and thinking about the emotion. The other thing that I really love about just tension versus conflict is that conflict is something that is felt on the page. Your characters are in conflict with each other. Perhaps. Or with nature, or what have you. But your reader is not in conflict. They are observing the conflict. The tension is the thing that both the readers and the characters can share.

[Mary Robinette] [garbled]

[Dan] I love this description of tension as requiring an emotional investment. For me, the way I have always thought about it, tension is a combination of anticipation and hope. You anticipate something bad is going to happen, you hope it doesn’t. But without that hope, without that one outcome I like and one outcome I don’t like, there isn’t really any tension. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.

[Mary Robinette] I think the outcome of tension and hope is where a lot of romance comes from. It’s like, oh, you know that they’re going to get together. So that’s the thing that you’re hoping for the entire time, but you keep seeing all of the reasons that they aren’t going to get together, which is what builds that tension. That’s a… I really like that framing, Dan.

[Howard] Yeah. I’ve… Without going into detail, one of the things that for me makes a good action scene is if I care about what’s happening. If the action scene… Fight scenes are often inherently conflict, because they’re fighting, but if I’m not feeling tension, if I’m not emotionally invested, all the great fight choreography is just eye candy. I don’t care. So tension is key. It’s critical.

[DongWon] Yeah. I think that brings up a really interesting point, because for me, tension is almost always about relationships, because stakes aren’t necessarily about survival, stakes are about consequence and how you see yourself or how you see other people in connection to other characters. Because that’s how we think about it, and that’s how we feel it, so just for a quick example going to what you’re saying, Howard, like the lobby scene out of the Matrix is them fighting a bunch of goons. The tension in that scene doesn’t come from are they going to shoot these security guards. It comes from is Neo starting to realize who he is? Is he in tension with himself? What matters to him? So we’re excited by that scene because we see, as Morpheus says, “He’s starting to believe.” We see that relationship starting to change. So the tension comes from an internal journey that the character is on, not the conflict of there are 10 random goons that need to get out of their way at this point.

[Erin] I think you can also, like, you’re thinking, “Oh, I’m just starting my story. Nobody yet cares about my characters. How am I going to create this tension?”

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Erin] One way to do that, also, is to tap into kind of primal tensions I think that we feel. So if you’re on a spaceship and the spaceship is breaking, that’s bad. But it’s also this person’s first day on the job, like, there’s a certain primal, “oh, crap, I just got this job, and now everything is breaking.” Or I have to give a speech. The things that people freak out about in their dreams. Like, that kind of thing, if you put it on the page, it’s a way to tap into tensions that people might be feeling in their own lives. Then use that to kind of move the action forward while you build up the character engagement.

[DongWon] Yeah. The thing that you said about conflict being something the character sees, but tension is something the audience sees. Conflict for the character is am I going to survive this. I, as a reader, at the beginning of a book, I don’t really care yet. I don’t know you. Sure, if you fall out into space and die, that’s not particularly interesting to me. But what is interesting to me is are you going to feel bad about it being your fault that you fall out into space and die. Right? I think that’s the difference between tension and that conflict in that way of stakes matter… Survival matters to the character, but you have to give me a reason to care. That’s where tension comes in.

[Howard] Circling back to Mary Robinette’s five things here, can I talk about juxtaposition for just a moment?

[Mary Robinette] I think you can, after the break. That is going to create tension for our readers, our listeners…


[Mary Robinette] As they wait to find out what Howard is going to say about juxtaposition.

[Dan] All right. So our thing of the week this week is Dark One: Forgotten. The first official collaboration between Dan Wells and Brandon Sanderson. This is the prequel to a story that has been out in graphic novel form for a while, called Dark One. It’s a portal fantasy. This is presented… The prequel is presented as a… As if it were a six episode podcast. Someone is making an amateur true crime podcast about a mysterious murder that has remained unsolved for 30 years. Over the course of the series, discovers many more mysteries and a much larger thing going on. This is a lot of fun, because of that nature of a… As a faux podcast, it is only in audio. It’s available pretty much everywhere audiobooks are available. Take special note of this thing of the week, because several episodes from now, we’re going to do a deep dive on this one. When we finish our whole tension class that we’re doing, we are going to do a deep dive into Dark One: Forgotten and talk about the process of writing it and producing it and everything at length. So, it’s a little over six hours, and it’s a lot of fun. They did an amazing job on the recording, the cast is wonderful. So, Dark One: Forgotten by Dan Wells and Brandon Sanderson.

[Mary Robinette] All right, Howard.

[Howard] Okay.

[Mary Robinette] All right, Howard. Tell me. Tell me about juxtaposition. [Garbled]

[Howard] Okay. Return of the King, the Peter Jackson, we have the scene where the Steward of Gondor has sent troops into Osgiliath to try and take it back. While those troops are in Osgiliath, the Steward is eating and making… I can’t remember if it’s Merry or Pippin… Making them sing…

[Dan] It’s Pippin.

[Howard] It’s Pippin. We are watching… Is it John Noble? Is that the name of the actor?

[Dan] Yes.

[Howard] I think it’s John Noble. We are watching him crush food in his mouth and dribble on his face and tear meat from bone as we watch these soldiers drive into Osgiliath. It is brilliant and beautiful as juxtaposition and also serves as a way to give us X-rated levels of gory horrible violence without actually doing that. Our… Your brain does all the work because of the juxtaposition. It makes you terribly tense because the soldiers on the horses have not yet been turned into grapes in John Noble’s mouth yet and you don’t know if they will be.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a great example. Something that it makes me think of that I’ve been thinking about a lot is how much of storytelling is a collaboration between the author and the reader. We talk about this in puppetry that the difference between playing with dolls and a puppet show is that one of them has an audience, and that the puppet exists in this liminal space between us. It is also true for writing, that I can write something, but the moment you start consuming it, you’re going to bring your own lens to it, your own experience, and you’re going to combined things in your own head in ways that I can’t anticipate.

[Erin] That makes me think a lot of something that I find really fascinating about tension. It is that difference between what readers are doing and what the characters are doing is narrative tension versus what I call contextual tension. So, narrative tension is the tension that characters feel, and contextual tension is the tension that readers feel. They don’t actually have to be the same. If the characters are blithely walking into an ambush, but you signal to the reader that there’s an ambush coming, there’s a difference there. Versus where both folks, both are feeling tense. So there’s a lot of really, really fun things that you can do there, in separating those two, and playing with where your character’s feeling tension, and where do you want your reader to be.

[DongWon] Yeah. I think of this really as genre expectations. Right? So if you’re in romance, you’re in horror, you’re in mystery, in the ways that we’ve talked about it in the past, the audience has certain expectations. This is why, when I talk about storytelling, I always talk about pattern recognition. Right? We have read and absorbed thousands upon thousands of stories over the course of our life. So, we have ideas about how these things are supposed to go. You can use those expectations for a lot of these techniques which [we mention?] here, in particular, anticipation and juxtaposition. Anticipation being sort of like we think we know how it’s going to go. Then, juxtaposition is the contrast of we thought it was going to go this way, but now it’s going that way. I think you can use that tension between the audience expectation and what’s happening in the text to kind of create a discordant note that automatically creates a sense of tension that the audience is so hungry for it to be resolved. Waiting for that resolution, waiting for that next cord to progress, so that we know where we’re going, is one of the most effective ways to create tension between the book and the audience.

[Dan] So one of the elements on Mary Robinette’s list that we haven’t talked much about yet is unanswered questions. Which, at one level, that’s just what a mystery is, right? Somebody is dead, we want to know who killed them and how. So we have that question. But there’s a lot of other ways to use this type of tension. The example that comes to mind is the old TV show Alias, which kind of leaned a little too heavily on this particular trope, but many, many… I would go so far as to say, most of those episodes started with the main character in a horrible situation, and then we would cut away and say, “72 hours earlier…” Then, that leaves us with this unanswered question of “Oh, no. I know she’s going to be in a horrible peril at some point. How does that happen? How is that situation created? What is going to go massively wrong?” That creates the tension that draws us through the episode to get the answer to that question.

[DongWon] This is also what’s commonly referred to as mystery box storytelling. This is this J. J. Abrams idea of asking what’s in the box, what’s in the puzzle, can be a driving force for your entire narrative. So, Lost is probably the most famous example of this. Sometimes they can be unsatisfying if it’s clear they never knew what’s in the box in the first place, but you can really connect with an audience who also wants to know what is the core of this mystery, what is the core thing that’s happening. A more recent example is Severance. It’s a good example of like, “What the hell is he actually doing down there?” It’s something that really drives the story forward.

[Erin] Speaking of boxes, literally, since we’ve done Glass Onion as thing of the week, maybe you’ve all seen this, but it starts with a box being opened. I think that why this is so important is because in order to have your audience trust that you will answer the unanswered questions, it helps to pose a question and answer it early on. So that you’re like, “I am capable of answering questions.” How will they open this box? They do. You saw it. So then you’re actually willing to give them more space. Each time you answer a question for an audience member or for a reader, I think what happens is you lengthen the amount of time that you can put between question and answer as they trust you that much more.

[Howard] Dan’s example, from Alias, 72 hours earlier, is the in media res, and we’re familiar with that structure. One of my favorite reversals of that can be found in the first paintball episode of Community. I think it’s episode 23 of season one, where Jeff leaves the room. We’ve been told, “Oh, there’s going to be a game of Paintball Assassin,” whatever. Jeff leaves the room and says, “I’ll see you losers later. I’m going to go take a nap in my car.” Then we see, kaching, one hour later. Jeff wakes up in his car, steps out of the car, and the campus is a wasteland, with sort of zombie wasteland music playing. For a couple of minutes there, you’re wondering, “Okay. What happened?” I now have a lot of questions about what could have gone this wrong in an hour. Now, obviously, it’s a community… It’s a community? It’s Community, so it’s a comedy. So there is exaggeration. But the tool is still there for you. Running the clock forward a little bit and things have changed, and how did it get this bad this quickly?

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to briefly cut into say that one of the reasons that we separated unanswered questions from anticipation is that… We went back and forth on whether or not they should be lumped together… Is that with anticipation is something that you know is going to happen. Like, you know that when they walked down the basement steps, that a bad thing is going to happen, and tension comes from that. It’s anticipating an outcome. Versus unanswered questions, where you don’t know the answer. So in one… You can be… With anticipation, you can be wrong about the answer. Like, often you build tension by having them go down the stairs, and then something jumps out at them. But it’s just the cat. So you can build anticipation and tension and let the reader be wrong about what they’re anticipating, but that is different than the reader does not know what is going to happen.

[DongWon] Yeah. I mean, so, like in Severance, I’m actually expecting not to get answers to many of the questions I have. It’s sort of a genre expectation, that I would almost be unsatisfied if they did answer all those questions, but finding out more so I can start piecing together the puzzle is one of the narrative things that’s pulling me through this story that I’m loving.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The last piece of it that we need to define, and then we’ll go to our homework, is micro-tension. I’ll try to keep this short. Micro-tension are smaller tensions that happen within a larger scene. So if your character is attempting to deal with a murder, but then they also have to make spaghetti dinner and the water boils over. That’s a micro-tension. They’re small tensions that pop up often from mundane sources, but not always.

[Howard] They can be related to the plot. I need to get the autopsy report, and in order to get the autopsy report, I have to apologize to the coroner. Now, macro-tension would be I’m going to steal the report.

[Mary Robinette] Yep.

[Howard] Hey, should I do the homework?

[Mary Robinette] I think that that’s a great idea, Howard.

[Howard] I should do homework. Okay. In this episode, we covered five types of tension. Anticipation, juxtaposition, unanswered questions, conflict, and micro-tension. Look at your current work in progress or something that you’re reading… Last week, we invited you to read a mystery… And try to identify examples of each of these. That’s it.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Mary Robinette] Imagine working with horses as a way to explore and enhance your creative process, all while enjoying the beautiful surroundings of Bear Lake, Utah. Led by me and Dan, this four-day workshop is suitable for writers and riders of all levels and experience. Come make new connections, receive valuable feedback, and set your writing goals in motion. Visit for more information about Riding Excuses. You are out of excuses, now go ride.