How to Create Tension with Goals, Conflict & Stakes

So you’ve been working on your novel. You’ve got a cast of fascinating characters, kick-ass world building and plenty of action, but your plot still feels a little flat.

If that sounds familiar, you probably need to build more tension.

What is tension and why is it important?

New authors often assume that the difference between a boring scene and an interesting one is what happens in it. A fight scene is interesting for example, while a travelling scene is not.

However, that’s not really true. Tales of epic battles can still feel dull – just ask anyone who didn’t enjoy history class – while a simple phone call has the potential to be nail-biting. What really matters is tension.

Tension is the difference between driving to work and being stuck in traffic on the way to the most important meeting of your life. It’s the difference between watching a movie and going on your first date. One is a non-event – we have no reason to care about it. It doesn’t really matter. The other is engaging – it’s uncertain, it’s got weight, and we want to know what happens next.

In short, tension is what keeps your readers reading. In today’s post, we’re going to talk about how to create it.

To get started, we need to understand tension’s three key ingredients: goals, conflict, and stakes.

Goals – what does your hero want?

Every character should want something, and this goes double for your hero. Their goal doesn’t have to be big – it could be to save the world, to find love, or simply to get through the day without anything going wrong. It can also change as the story goes on – the protagonist in a thriller might start out trying to locate a missing person and end up fighting to topple a global conspiracy.

Figuring our your hero’s goal has plenty of advantages. For a start, it’ll help you keep their choices consistent and believable. It also encourages proactivity, which is invaluable – a character who acts is usually far more interesting than one who simply goes where they’re pushed.

For our purposes though, having that goal is also the first step towards creating tension.

A goal is something we can root for. We want the sports team to win or the bad guys to be vanquished, and when our heroes finally succeed – or when they don’t – we get to share a little piece of that experience.

Of course, your protagonist isn’t the only one with goals. What does their sidekick want? Is it the same thing as the hero, or something slightly different? What does the antagonist want?

When two characters have opposing goals, that’s a great way to create… Conflict!

Conflict – why can’t they have it?

Having a goal is a good start, but if it’s too easy it won’t keep anyone hooked. If the bad guys give up without a fight or the romantic couple live happily ever after from page one, you won’t have much of a story. If the only reason the goal hasn’t been achieved yet is that your protagonist has been arbitrarily doing other things to pad out your book, your readers are probably going to be left pulling their hair out.

We need to put something between our hero and their goal. It doesn’t have to be world-ending, but it needs to be big enough for their success to be uncertain – enough to make us doubt, or at the very least wonder ‘how will they do it?’.

This is what keeps us reading. We want to know if the hero will succeed. We want to find out how it ends.

Most good stories will be packed with conflicts of all shapes and sizes. There’ll be a huge, overarching conflict that forms the backbone of the plot, and there’ll be smaller, temporary conflicts that must be overcome along the way. These conflicts might be external – between two characters or due to events beyond the hero’s control. Or, they could be internal – a flaw or character trait that must be overcome in order for them to succeed.

With a good conflict in place, we’re most of the way there. We just need one more thing.

Stakes – why does it matter?

We know what our hero wants, and we know what’s stopping them. The only question that remains is… So what?

Say our hero is a detective on the trail of a wanted man. If she fails, what are the consequences? The fugitive gets away? Our hero doesn’t get paid? How interested are you in that story?

What if the fugitive is a murderer, and will kill again if our hero doesn’t stop them. Better? What if our detective is the next name on their list?

Stakes force our hero to do something – they can’t afford to fail. They have to act, fight, and choose. They have to succeed, or else. The higher the stakes, and the more personal they are to our hero, the greater the tension.

Having said that, not all stakes are appropriate for every story. Thrillers and horror stories practically require our hero to be in mortal danger. A cosy detective novel, less so. A love story where the fate of humanity is at stake might be really tense, but would it still feel like a love story? Probably not. Choose stakes that set the right tone for your novel; just make sure that – to your hero – they matter.

Managing tension

Tension is vital, but more tension isn’t always better. Some stories thrive off it, while others work better when it’s subtle, lurking in the background.

One rule is constant. As your story progresses, tension can only go one way – up.

That’s not to say tension shouldn’t ebb and flow along the way, giving your readers a moment to reflect before pulling them back in – it should. However, broadly speaking the tension must get greater as the book progresses towards its climax. If the most nail-biting moments in your story all happen in act one, the rest is going to feel flat and disappointing by comparison.

Most importantly, there should always be tension. Even during a moment of relaxation between major plot points, there has to be something that remains unresolved, to tug us forward onto the next page. As the story goes on, keep adding new conflicts and increasing the stakes. When your protagonist overcomes one obstacle, reveal a greater one in its place. When your heroes feel safe, raise the stakes. Think about the stories you enjoy, and look at how they do exactly that.

And next time your story starts to drag, ask yourself – what are the goals, the conflicts, and the stakes? Find those, and you’re on the right path.