Storytelling Essentials: Rising Tension


The key ingredient to a powerful climax is the rising tension that precedes it. This is one of the more complex elements of storytelling, but the ability to implement it into scenes separates an amateur author from a professional. Let’s take a look at an example of a scene with rising tension.

* * *

Larry had ten minutes to get to Benji’s house. If he didn’t make it in time, Benji would slaughter his dog.

The entire thing was out of control. It all started with a small bet among friends. Larry never could have guessed their sick game would have spun this far out of control…

Larry ran faster as he approached the street corner. He wasn’t too far away, if he could just-

A street parade. Of all the days, the Fat Pride parade had to be today. Why, God, did they have to fill the sidewalks and proclaim their mutual fondness of morbid obesity on this day, of all days. Larry stopped. He didn’t have any options – how was he supposed to wiggle through these giant marshmallows?

The images flashed through his mind again – the blazing car, the confused car wash guy, and then his wife Leona. Leona at the swingers club. Leona with… them.

“Dammit!” screamed Larry, as he punched his thigh.

He didn’t have time to think about that now. His dog was next, unless he could get there in time. He checked his watch – seven minutes. He had to trek about a quarter mile in seven minutes.

Larry looked at the main roadway then gulped. The big boys and girls were marching through the street as they waved hoagies like they were batons. He looked down at his own gut and gave it a jiggle. Larry was qualified.

He tore open his button down flannel then ran into the roadway with the rest of the parade. More than a few onlookers seemed to notice he wasn’t in costume. But it wasn’t them he was worried about – it was the group of policemen pointing at him a little ways up. They were on their radios. They were still looking for him, and Larry knew it. Every step he took towards his house brought him closer to his own arrest. Still, he proceeded.

It should have ended that night – right at the bar, where it all began. The ‘quarter toss’, they had called it.

The game was simple. Larry was fifteen drinks in when he’d invented it. He took a quarter, then made a deal – if it landed on heads, Larry would buy the drinks. If it landed on tails, Benji would. Larry won that first toss, but incited a competitive nature in all of them that led up to this.  Everything from the purses of their wives to the trophies of their children had been wagered. Then the quarter game seemed boring – they needed a bigger fix.

And it all too quickly escalated into this game of exhausting challenges with huge payoffs and ridiculously high stakes. If Benji got to his house in time, he’d get the kind of prize that every man with blood in his veins and juice in his dick dreams about – but if he didn’t, he’d have to explain to his wife why their dog’s head would hereby be placed on the mantel piece above Benji’s fireplace.

“That’s him!” yelled one of the cops. The group scattered out, clubs drawn, and chased after him.

Benji took one last glance at his watch – two minutes left. He looked up. His house was six down. He had to book it, but he was no triathlon athlete.

The cops were having trouble squeezing through all the fatties behind him. Larry was having trouble breathing.

That’s when he noticed it – the segways! A bunch of the big boys were driving them at a furious pace. They weren’t like the segways mall cops used – these were the ferraris of the stand-up, two wheel vehicles.

“Get off or I’ll eat you!” Larry barked at one of them.

The man looked scared out of his mind, and with one more grunt Larry startled the man enough to jump away.

Larry took the ride, turned the handle, and zoomed along the street. He turned around and watched as the cops gradually came to slow, realizing the futility of their pursuit. He weaved with ease between parade floats and men in sumo-wrestler attire. He checked his watch – 30 seconds. Larry looked up and laughed. He was going to make it. He was going to win the bet. He was going to have Benji’s wife-

Larry turned onto his driveway. He felt his heart skip a beat when he saw it – the front gate. It was locked, and he didn’t have any key. It was about ten feet high, with sharp spikes at the top.

He checked his watch again – fifteen seconds.

That was it. Finished. No chance.

He’d never jumped anything over 4 feet in his life. Well he did in high school, but that was only because he was on the-

Wait. He had a chance. It was a long shot, but it existed.

Eight seconds.

Larry turned and looked. A round man held a towering wooden fork. Larry took it from him without hesitation then started charging at the gate.

“Hey!” came the yell from behind.

Three seconds.

Larry planted the pronged end of the fork into the cement, pushed off his feet, then rode the handle as the fork used his own momentum to propel him into the air. Larry flew like the Michelin man were he a superhero.

One second.

Larry passed right over the doormat. He smashed into the front door with both feet and blew it open. He landed inside Benji’s house, on top of his front door, as a cloud of wood chips and dust puffed up around him.

“Well well well,” said Benji, holding an axe in one hand. The dog’s head was already locked in the guillotine. “Looks like you made it after all.” He sighed, then set the weapon on a table.

“You know the deal,” said Larry. “Go tell your wife.”

A short while later, Larry sat on Benji’s couch watching the football game.

“Here you go, Larry.”

“Thanks Benji’s wife,” he said, as he took the sandwich from her then had a bite.

“So, I have to ask… Is this really your wildest fantasy?”

“Not till you put a beer in my hand it isn’t.”

* * *

Okay, that was a long one (And sorry if you hate Larry, but sometimes assholes are more fun to watch).

Let’s take a look at the various elements employed, and figure out why exactly you felt the urge to read on as you approached the scene’s climax.

1. Suspense. Right off the bat, we learned that Larry needed to get home in ten minutes in order to save his dog from being slaughtered. This raises questions in the readers mind. Why is Larry’s dog’s life at risk? Why does he have only ten minutes to save him? These types of questions will compel your readers to read on right from the get-go. People read stories to get answers – but in order for your answers to matter, you need to raise the right questions, first.

2. Conflict – there are three major elements that keep Larry from getting to Benji’s house free-and-easy. The first was the ‘fat pride’ parade, the second were the cluster of cops, and the third was the locked gate with spikes at the top.

So, what exactly caused the tension to rise?

It was the combination of these elements. The main thing that pressed you to read on was the ‘ticking clock’ mechanism. This is any deadline you give to your protagonist. Even as we are reading back story about the origin of the strange game Larry is playing, the ticking clock is in the back of your mind. You are always aware that Larry has ‘x’ amount of time to attain his objective, and the fact that this ‘x’ is dwindling every moment creates a sense of urgency in the otherwise leisurely hobby of reading.

Stakes played a large roll as well. Nobody wants Larry’s dog to be slaughtered, it’s innocent! The ticking clock wouldn’t have mattered if the dog’s life wasn’t at risk, however. Try to imagine how this scene would have read if there were no stakes –

Larry had ten minutes to get home or else Benji would be really mad at him.

I bet you’re thinking something along the lines of ‘Oh, poor Larry… Have a nice life softie, if you need me I’ll be dealing with real problems while you risk getting your feelings hurt.’

Now the other element was the pay-off. If Larry gets home in time, something really good happens to him. I wasn’t too clear as to what that would be, so there’s a touch of suspense there as well.

These three ingredients – stakes, objective, and conflict, will make a good story whenever mixed together. Learning how to weave them effectively enough to create ‘rising tension’ is a skill that can be honed, but it takes both awareness and practice, just like anything else.

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

– Author of A New Kingdom