Mastering Stylistic Tension

september-c-fawkesOne of the first things writers learn is to start a story with conflict. Some writers have bombs go off. Others start with a death. Or a break-up. But over the years, looking at unpublished material, I’ve learned and relearned that how such conflicts are rendered on the page stylistically can often be just as important as the conflict itself, and sometimes even more important.

I’ve seen a lot of stories start with the dead or dying—a topic that is universal to the human experience. And yet, stories that promise a content-minor conflict on something like, say, a character losing her job, seem to have more tension. Why is that?

Often it’s based on how the writer handles the conflict stylistically. In some ways, it’s not the conflict itself that draws readers in, it’s the promise of conflicts. A story that opens blatantly with death often isn’t as interesting as a story that opens with the promise of death—whether that death happens on the first page or last page of the story.

When you begin a story with a death itself . . . that’s it. It’s all there, on the page. But when you begin a story with a promise of death, the reader feels the need to read on to find out about the death and discover whether or not is actually happens.

Weeks ago, when doing some research, I ran into this article on Writer’s Digest, which makes a few articulate statements on what I’m talking about today. It points out that showing the audience the cat in the bag isn’t near as interesting as mentioning only a whisker or paw poking out of the bag. The article goes on to give these two examples that I’m going to borrow:

The blackened mask had two slits for the eyes and a triangular hole where the nose would fit. Lips pierced by claw-like teeth were painted where the mouth would have been, and my mind screamed the question … would I be victim or victimizer this time?

This example shows us the entire “cat.” The content has tension, but the way it’s rendered it so straightforward, it nearly robs the passage of tension.

Compare that example to this one:

 “I didn’t know you’d gone to acting school,” she said. 

He laughed. “My father’s idea. I only lasted two months, and I was pretty bored.” He pushed himself from the chair. “What about that pizza?”

The content of this example is pretty simple, and yet, the way it’s presented carries a sense of uncertainty about it. The female implies that she should have already known about acting school, which subconsciously makes us wonder why she doesn’t, and if the male is hiding something.

When the male laughs it off, downplays it, and changes the subject, we are left to feel more uncertain. We are left feeling tension, even if we can’t consciously point to it on the page.

cat-shadowIn short, the second example lets us glimpse a whisker or paw, and not the whole cat.

Please note that there are times we should probably see the whole cat, like at the climax of the story. But even then, your story might have more power by leaving an ear or tail in shadow. This all goes back, again, to the power of implying things in writing, instead of saying everything straight out. When we imply things, the reader becomes more of a participator in the story, which leads to them being invested in the story.

Questions (often subconscious ones) are what hook a reader, not answers to things they don’t yet care about.

Can you start a story with a blatant death? Of course, but in the process, you want to promise other conflicts. The death should push the door wide open to big problems. It should be the vehicle that lets you promise more tension. It creates more problems rather than being the sum of the problems. Same with openings where bombs go off and break-ups happen, etc.

Ultimately it’s this stylistic skill of only showing a whisker that makes “simple” stories feel significant. It’s one reason why a story opening about a conflict between a father and daughter can sometimes feel more interesting than a story opening with the president being assassinated. If the opening is only about the president being assassinated, it won’t have the promises that make readers want to keep reading. Whereas, a minor argument between a parent and child that has promises of future tension might make us want to read more.

So, in opening your story (and even throughout), remember that it’s not the conflict alone that draws readers in, it’s the promise of tension in the future. Don’t put the whole cat on paper.

What ways do you promise your readers conflict? Let us know in the comments!


september-c-fawkes_3Sometimes September scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. She works as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author while penning her own stories, holds an English degree, and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Find out more about September here, hang with her on social media, or visit her website to follow her writing journey and get more writing tips.

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Sharon M Hart
4 years ago

I like your analogy of how much to show of the cat. It made me think of Schrodinger’s Cat. Now there is a completely different dimension of tension because one cannot know for certain if it even exists. You have given me something to think about – thanks for sharing.


[…] have got to keep those readers turning the page. September C. Fawkes discusses mastering stylistic tension, Janice Hardy gives us the key to creating suspense, Zoe M. McCarthy explores how hyperbole in […]

4 years ago

Such a great post, September. I learned a long time ago that while conflict and tension are often considered to be synonymous, they’re different. Tension is key for winding up the character’s—and therefore the reader’s-emotions, and we know emotion is the key to strengthening reader empathy. Thanks for sharing these tips on building that important tension.

September C. Fawkes
4 years ago

That is a fantastic comparison that I will have to remember. I hadn’t thought of it that way. So true.

Traci Kenworth
4 years ago

I like the build-up to things too. Showing that paw or whisker can stoke tension into a scene.

September C. Fawkes
4 years ago
Reply to  Traci Kenworth

Hi Traci,

Yes, I definitely agree. And “stoke” is the perfect word.

4 years ago

I absolutely love tension and subtext, and the beautiful stretched feeling that we can create in readers through it.

A few weeks ago I posted a link on twitter to an article that encouraged writers to avoid overusing crying in their writing and a follower responded, asking me why I would ever want to pull such an emotional punch by avoiding tears. I had to explain to them that as readers, what gets us isn’t the tears, but the emotional roller coaster of tension that leads to them.

Totally agree that sometimes we can do so much more by showing something in stages, hinting and suggesting, than we can be offering a “Here’s Johnny!” right off the bat. 😉 Thanks for this great post, September!

September C. Fawkes
4 years ago

Thanks for having me today. I love subtext too. And tension of course. Yes, the crying thing was something I didn’t get right away either, but have learned over time. Thanks. ^_^