Tension-Filled Books

So, after my last post on tension, Christine Mandiloff asked for suggestions of other books where tension is used well. I had to think about this, but I’ve come up with a few that I think are fitting, for different reasons. Keep in mind, though, that tension is somewhat relative, and what I find riveting may be kind of…eh…to you.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
I’m pretty sure this one’s universal. And the tension comes in a couple of forms. First, high stakes. I mean, it’s life or death. When the stakes are that high, the reader is going to be on the edge of their seat. Secondly, unbelievable circumstances. Collins created such a uniquely horrific scenario in the arena that the reader can’t not keep reading. It’s like the car wreck that you can’t stop looking at. And lastly, the stakes aren’t just high once or twice or for a little while. Katniss’s life is in danger repeatedly throughout the whole book.
Applications: 1. Make sure your character’s stakes are high. 2. Make the situation as bad as you possibly can for your characters. Then, make it worse. 3. Keep threatening what’s at stake and reminding the reader what’s at risk.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
Tension is high in this one because of, again, high stakes. Survival or extinction. The fact that the story is based on the Holocaust, on real-life events, makes it even more gut-wrenching. Knowing that this kind of thing happened repeatedly to lots of different people makes you want the main character to succeed all the more. And lastly, the narrator. Um, it’s Death. With a first-person story, you might be riveted, but you also know, pretty much, that the main character is going to make it. But here, in this environment where literally millions of people didn’t survive, you just don’t know if the main character is going to pull through. That kind of uncertainty for the character the reader has come to love is guaranteed to engage them emotionally.

1. High Stakes.

2. Whenever possible, draw parallels between your character’s world and ours. Tap into the emotions of historical events to make your story believable, engaging, and heart-wrenching.

3. If the main character’s life is on the line, find a way to make the reader question whether or not she’s going to make it.

Divergent, Veronica Roth
First–you guessed it. High stakes. Sometimes Tris’s life is in danger (often in a brutal or violent manner), and other times, she’s in danger of a fate that in her society is maybe worse than death: being outcast, Factionless. Roth makes it very clear what a big deal this is for people in Tris’s world, so right off the bat, the reader does NOT want this to happen to her.

1. Again, make the stakes high.

2. Make sure your reader understands their importance.

How To Survive Middle School, Donna Gephart
Ok. This humorous contemporary MG is miles apart from the preceding examples, but, like them, I couldn’t put the book down. Why? Tension, in the form of a super-empathetic character. He’s nerdy, and funny, and kind of clueless–in other words, he’s vulnerable. He’s like that kid everyone knew who was always getting picked on and no one stood up for him. I wanted to stand up for him. And it helped that the voice was crystal clear. David sounded like someone I knew. It’s hard not to root for someone you know. Secondly, you could see from the start what was coming down the pike for poor David, and he had no clue. Sometimes it’s good to keep things under wraps, but sometimes it’s better to let the reader know just what’s coming, so they’ll want to run in and save the main character from himself. And last, while I wouldn’t classify the stakes as high (though David surely would have), I would call them universal. Middle school humiliation and social exile. Who hasn’t experienced that, or seen it happening first-hand?


1. Create a truly empathetic character.

2. Give him a voice that, while unique, is familiar.

3.  Create universal stakes that the reader can relate to.


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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Christine Mandiloff
8 years ago

Here is my belated thanks! I’m anxious to read these books, and am finding I have new eyes for all the books I read with respect to tension, and of course for writing. Much appreciated.

Belle Knight
9 years ago

Hi! I gave your awesome blog the Liebster Award! Thank you so much for your writerly insight.


Gail Shepherd
9 years ago

Your smartness just never ceases to amaze me, Becca. This is an excellent analysis of how all three of these books are working. I’m rereading Lord of the Flies at the moment; talk about tension! “Kill the pig! Cut her throat! Spill her blood!” I can’t believe teachers make schoolkids read this stuff, but hoo-boy, it’s a model as a page turner.

Cynthia Chapman Willis

This is such a great analysis of tension. I love dissecting what makes a novel a page-turner. Tension is always at the top of the list of qualifications. As if your analysis isn’t great enough, you have such superb examples here. Wonderful, post!

9 years ago

I’ve read the first two and definitely agree. I really want to read Divergent, but I’ve never heard of the last one. If it has great tension, I have no doubt it will be a fantastic read as well.

Becca Puglisi
9 years ago

Donna, I was so glad I found your book in time for this post. It was a great example of how tension is possible in humorous and contemporary stories, not just dark YA.

Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse


I so want to read The Book Thief, it is never in my library. The book thief stole it lol. I’ve got a blog award for you on my blog today: http://catherinemjohnson.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/blog-award-and-book-giveaway-results/

Rachna Chhabria
9 years ago

Graet post and great examples. I have already ordered my copy of Hunger Games and the Book Thief is next on the list.

I like the sound of How to Survive Middle School.

Wild About Words
9 years ago

What a fabulous blog! How had I not discovered it sooner?

Thanks so much for including my little hamster book with these heavy hitters.

You two are filled with awesome!

Mirka Breen
9 years ago

Good book choices for can’t-put-it-down.

Lisa Gail Green
9 years ago

Awesome examples!! I love hearing you analyze this stuff.

9 years ago

Great examples. Thanks for breaking tension down like that into applications. Much appreciated.

9 years ago

Great post! I just blogged about why I love The Hunger Games and your applications fit neatly with what Donald Maass says are crucial elements to a breakout novel.

Corey Schwartz
9 years ago

Read the first three. Off to order the fourth! Really need something humorous right now.

9 years ago

I haven’t read Divergent, but I may have to. Like Laura, I put down the Book Thief also, but perhaps I should give it a second try.

C.R. Evers
9 years ago

I’m a big fan of The Hunger Games. I have highlights and notes written all over my copy because I’ve been trying to dissect how she did the pacing.

Great post!

9 years ago

Great choices! I love The Hunger Games and the others are on my list of books to read!

Shannon O'Donnell
9 years ago

Love these examples! I haven’t read How to Survive Middle School, and I love that you included it here. It shows us that it doesn’t HAVE to be end-of-the-world/death drama in order to have high stakes. I like that. 🙂

9 years ago

An excellent way to explain the concept. I enjoyed reading the previous post on tension and this one helps me understand better. It is challenging and at the same time, fun to make things worse for the MCs. Because at the end of it, no matter what the stakes were, they would emerge winners! at least in the reader’s mind! 🙂 Thank you for yet another helpful post!

Angela Ackerman
9 years ago

This is awesome–I love the applications at the end. I hope you do more of these in the future! 🙂

9 years ago

I may be one of the few holding out on reading The Hunger Games, lol. I’m going to check out Divergent, though. Sounds interesting. Thanks!

9 years ago

Ooh, thanks for the recommendations! Can’t wait to get my hands on The Book Thief. *sigh* I’ll just tack it onto my lengthy To Read list.

Ava Jae
9 years ago

I absolutely loved The Hunger Games and Divergent–what fantastic reads. I’ve heard a lot about The Book Thief, so I’ll have to check that one out.

Thanks for the recommendations!

Matthew MacNish
9 years ago

I’ve only read one of these (Collins), but it sure is a great example!

9 years ago

I’ve only read The Hunger Games, but now you’ve got me curious about the others! Tension is often hard to maintain in writing, I think. At least for me. Every once in awhile, I have to stop and consider what I’ve written so far and make sure I’m keeping a bit of tension on each page. Tension comes in so many forms, but no matter what, you want the reader to feel it!

Stina Lindenblatt
9 years ago

Great examples. I’ve read Divergent and The Hunger Games. They were definitely tough to put down, thanks to the tension.

Bish Denham
9 years ago

These are wonderful examples. I haven’t read the last book, but it sounds very much like one I’d enjoy.

Laura Pauling
9 years ago

I agree with Divergent and Hunger Games. I put down the Book Thief but I think I didn’t give it enough time. The Marbury Lens was a book I absolutely could not put down.

9 years ago

Oops, that should be under the other blog!! Tension is imperative in a story and I think the examples you used are fantastic. Side note: Can’t wait to see The Hunger Games movies either.

9 years ago

What a fabulous trait to explore. I love stubborn characters, it makes their victory worth even more!