More Tension-Building Tips: Learning From a Pro

I saw the final Harry Potter movie last week. I think I’m in mourning. I’m also still pondering the tension piece of writing, and how important it is. Put those two pieces together, and you (or at least I) get an interesting question: How did Rowling manage to keep us turning those gajillions of pages through a 7-book series? I know there were long narrative stretches, backstory, and other potentially skippable parts. How did she do it? So I re-read book 5 and I noticed some really great tension-building techniques that we all should be applying.

  1. Add excitement/conflict to potentially boring scenes. Take the scene at the dinner table when Sirius tells Harry all that’s been going on in the wizarding world while Harry was stuck at the Dursleys. Dinner table + backstory should = boring. But it doesn’t, because a couple of tension-building subplots are threaded through it: a) Harry and Sirius are both angry at Dumbledore and the reader doesn’t know why, and b)  information is deliberately being kept from Harry–information that directly effects him and he should have access to. Tension comes in the form of information that the reader and character don’t have and strong character emotion because of it.
  2. Make the setting interesting. Even though this scene happens at a dinner table, the kitchen in question is located in a grimy, grungy, nasty dark wizard’s house that’s occupied by evil creatures and a hostile house elf. Knowing that anything crazy could happen makes the scene more appealing. Granted, every scene can’t occur in a Grimmauld Place, but for situations like these, see what you can do to add interest, humor, fear, or uniqueness to the setting.
  3. Make sure that other things are going on. While they’re sitting around talking, Tonks is transforming her nose into various shapes for entertainment purposes. Peripheral humor is still funny and always welcome to the reader. Also, Ginny is rolling butterbeer corks on the floor for Crookshanks. This bit isn’t critical to the overall plot, but it adds some action to a scene where there’s not a whole lot happening.
  4. Delay exciting/important events. In my copy of book 5, Harry learns about his disciplinary hearing on page 33. The actual hearing doesn’t happen for one hundred pages. By delaying that important event, the tension stretches out, and the reader continues reading because they can’t put the book down until they find out whether or not he’s going to be expelled.
  5. Never give the hero a break. In the first quarter of the book, very few good things happen to Harry. During this time, he:
  • is stuck at the Dursleys
  • has little or no word from his friends
  • is threatened with expulsion for using underage magic
  • is being blown off by Dumbledore
  • isn’t made a prefect
  • sees thestrals along with Hogwart’s resident nutter
  • discovers that Hagrid is missing
  • has an embarrassing encounter with Cho
  • is considered a freak, liar, and attention-seeker by his peers
  • endures two week-long, literally torturous detentions with Umbridge
  • misses keeper tryouts, and
  • pisses off Sirius

During all this time, only two really positive things happen (leaving the Dursleys/reuniting with friends and being acquitted at his hearing). Otherwise, it is literally obstacle after obstacle for poor Harry. Sucks for him, but all that negativity serves to make the reader more sympathetic. We want him to succeed. And when he does, we’re completely impressed because he overcame such opposition. If the path to success were easy, he wouldn’t be a hero.

So keep these tips in mind when writing. By studying a master, maybe we, too, can keep readers hooked for hundreds of pages.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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[…] after my last post on tension, Christine Mandiloff asked for suggestions of other books where tension is used well. I had to […]

Christine Mandiloff
9 years ago

Sounds good, thanks!

Becca Puglisi
9 years ago

You know, i’ve only just started thinking about tension and conflict, so I haven’t been reading with that in mind. I will think on this and get back to you, probably with a post containing high-tension books, lol.

Christine Mandiloff
9 years ago

These articles on conflict and tension are incredibly helpful. Thank you. Can anyone think of other authors who use conflict and tension effectively, who we can learn from?

Gail Shepherd
9 years ago

Fabulous Becca, I’m bookmarking this — really great tension tips.

Katrina S. Forest
9 years ago

Great advice. While I always appreciate reading helpful writing strategies, it’s a great bonus to see what books on the shelves used a technique effectively.

Tony Riches
9 years ago

Great post Becca – however much experience we have it is so easy to forget some of these things in story telling and they make all the difference

Martha Ramirez
9 years ago

EXCELLENT post! I so needed this right now too. Thank you for taking the time to analyze Harry and sharing it with us:)

Lisa Gail Green
9 years ago

Bravo! Excellent points. And woot for using HP to do it!

Christina Farley
9 years ago

Excellent pointers! I love it when an author hints at something to come and then you find out about it later. Very clever storycrafting!

9 years ago

Excellent lessons!! Filling out a scene during backstory didn’t occur to me, I will be sure to keep it in mind in the future.

Jeff King
9 years ago

Great post… also she kept me turning pages because her characters felt like long lost friends, and I had to find out what happens to them!

Tracey Wood
9 years ago

Author was having a perfectly ordinary morning browsing blog posts (snoring dog in background, fire burning her leg just below the point of actual pain)…and read bad news. Eek. Tense scene. I must get back to my other (clearly lame) scene and add more stuff. Great post!

9 years ago

Great tips here, thanks!

Carol Ervin
9 years ago

These reminders come exactly at a time when I need them! Thanks for your analysis.

Carol Ervin
9 years ago

These reminders come exactly at a time when I need them! Thanks for your analysis.

9 years ago

These are so helpful! Tension is something I struggle with a lot in my work so this is a great guide.

Carrie Butler
9 years ago

Great work, Becca! Honestly, I’d love to see more analytical posts like this one. As you said, it really helps to study the masters. 🙂

9 years ago

Excellent breakdown. One of the best posts I’ve read on tension. Gave me several “oh yeah” moments.

J.J. Lancer
9 years ago

I love it when people analyze and deconstruct successful writing.

Even though I’ve heard “tension, tension, tension” many times before, this post provided a real life example of how it works.

Thanks a ton.

Elle Strauss
9 years ago

Writing good books is hard. Great post–always so much to keep learning.

9 years ago

Excellent tips with a perfect example! Rowling is so good at this, there’s a lot we can learn from her, and you of course! 🙂

9 years ago

This is a really great post. Bookmarking it.

Tension really is the most important part of storytelling. That and running the protagonist through the ringer 🙂

Tiffany Garner
9 years ago

Great, great comments! I’m writing a series, and I’m definitely going back to my HP collection to get pointers. Thanks for the break down!

Susan Flett Swiderski
9 years ago

Thank you, ma’am. While pointing out the techniques used in that dinner scene, you provided us with some great (ahem) food for thought.

Keri Mikulski
9 years ago

Good stuff. 🙂

Bish Denham
9 years ago

You put this all together very neatly, Becca. Laid out so clearly makes what JK Rowling did seem simple. But it’s not, we have to work hard to make it so.

Stina Lindenblatt
9 years ago

That’s a great example, Becca. JK Rowling is definitely a master at creating page turners.

9 years ago

Ah, this post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’m in a “dinner table” scene right now, and have been struggling not to make it a snore-fest. Thanks for the analysis of Rowling’s work and suggestions for how to keep the tension up!

Todd R. Moody
9 years ago

I know ever scene is supposed to have some tension, this is a great reminder and the idea to delay the payoff is also great to keep in mind! Awesome post!