by Karin Beery

Have you ever been in a restaurant when the people next to you started arguing? Talk about tension! Putting a fight or argument into your story is a great way to add tension, but if you rely solely on personal confrontation, you’ll end up with characters who fight constantly. It won’t take long for that to annoy your readers.

So how do you add tension without the fights? Simple – make everything go wrong for the characters. As soon as things start to return to normal, throw another obstacle in front of them. Here are some great ways to tense things up without ruining your story.

  1. Move your characters. Take them out of a familiar setting, whether it’s just moving into a new house or a completely new city. Changing the location opens lots of problematic doors.
  2. Change their jobs. Even if your characters are completely confident in their work abilities, the new location, co-workers, and management/employees can add tension.
  3. Lose something precious. Grandma’s ring. Dad’s Joe Montana autographed football. It doesn’t matter how big or valuable, as long as there’s sentimental attachment.
  4. Give them something they don’t want. A new dog. Another pregnancy. An old house full of junk inherited from a deceased relative/hoarder. Anything that messes up the status quo will add tension.
  5. Destroy something. A deer/car accident that leaves your character without a way to get to work. A house fire that leaves him homeless. A drowned cell phone that causes your character to miss an important phone call.
  6. Give them friends and co-workers. Unless your story takes place on a deserted island, you can add minor characters who mess with your main characters. Don’t start arguments though, just put them in tense situations. An ex-boyfriend who interrupts a dinner date or the highly motivated co-worker who tramples anyone on his way to the next promotion.
  7. Bring in the family. Whether it’s the nuclear family or a distant relative, the possibilities are endless for creating tension: the sexist uncle who insults every woman in the room; the annoying cousin who’s never worked a day in her life; the younger sibling who’s always trying to prove himself. (Try to avoid the nagging mother-in-law and the self-centered stepmom though – they’ve become cliché.)

Look at your characters and evaluate their situations. Figure out what would really push their buttons – then push them! Determine what would ruin their plans – then ruin them! This kind of tension gives your characters issues to work through without forcing them to slip into nagging, argumentative behaviors. Tension, tension, tension!
How have you added tension to your story?

Karin Beery – Writer. Editor. Novelist. Karin writes contemporary fiction with a healthy dose of romance. When she’s not writing fiction, she’s editing or writing business copy through her business Write Now Editing & Copywriting Services. And when she’s not doing either of those, she teaches Substantive Editing for Fiction and Romance Editing through the PEN Institute. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterInstagram, or at her website,