Building tension is a skill that can make or break a horror story. If you were going to concentrate on one skill to master, as a writer, this would be it.
You create tension by setting up a task that your character has to perform. There must be stakes if the character fails and it must be unclear if they can succeed. There must be a reason why they have to act but something holds them back.
Horror stories are built on tension. In some cases, a horror story is nothing but building tension from start to finish. This makes it important to learn how to do it if you want to tell scary stories. Here are the ways to build tension in your stories.
Prepare for Action
Tension starts when a character expects to take action of some kind. Imagine a cat that hears rustling in the grass. It tenses up, ready to pounce. This is tension. It is getting ready to do something.
The feeling of tension is our body getting ready to perform a task that may be difficult or require a degree of skill and judgement. If we expect to do an easy task, there is very little tension. But if we expect to do something where we are unsure if we can achieve it, then the tension is much higher.
To create tension with your characters, you have to point out something difficult or dangerous that they need to do and then have them prepare to do it. The tension comes from their preparation, both physically and mentally.
Something is Holding Them Back
Although tension comes from preparing for action, your character should have a reason why they can’t act right away. Spontaneous action doesn’t create tension. There has to be a pause between preparing to act and taking action. This pause is where we feel the tension.
The character should be prepared to move but unsure exactly what to do yet. Should they fight or flee? The sensation that lingers over our body at this moment is the tension that we are trying to build as the author.
Because of this, you have to create a reason why the character can’t simply attack the monster lurking in the shadows. Similarly, they can’t just run away. Something prevents them. They have to wait and see what is going to happen even though it means increasing the chance of danger.
For example, suppose a mother hears creepy laughter come from her child’s room and then it cuts off abruptly. She should leave, but she doesn’t know if her child is in the room or not, so she must stay. She must confirm if her child is in danger but she may be putting herself in danger. She may have to fight or run but she can’t know which one yet.
Timing and Ambiguity
There must be something ambiguous about the threat or action that the character has to face. If it is clear what a person must do, and they know exactly how long they have to do it, then there is not much tension.
If it is unclear what a character must do, and they are unsure if they will be able to do it, then the tension is much higher.
This will mainly be apparent in the timing of the threat. If your character thinks someone is trying to break into their room, they will prepare to defend themself. They may stand ready with a baseball bat to fight off the attacker. But if there is a pause, and it is unclear when the attacker is going to break in, then the tension builds.
Create a situation where the threat could happen at any time. That way the tension is felt while wondering when the threat is going to appear.
Success is not Guaranteed
Another thing about tension-building is that the success of the character’s actions is not guaranteed. Your character may be ready to fight, but if it is unclear whether they will be able to hold their own, then the tension is greater.
Imagine a scenario where a character must choose between option A and option B. One of these options will save them and the other will punish them in some way. This builds tension because the character must choose, but they may get it wrong.
Another scenario might be that the character must jump their motorbike over a chasm to escape a horde of zombies. Maybe they have attempted this jump before and failed. Now they must do it and they only get one try. The tension comes from the fact that they might fail, but they have to do it anyway.
When creating the source of the tension, it is best if the information is incomplete.
For example, suppose a character hears on the radio that a killer is in the area. The radio announcer mentions that the killer is at a campsite where the protagonist is staying. Just when the announcer starts to describe the killer, the radio cuts off.
Now we know that there is a killer around, but not what they look like. This creates more tension than just knowing that there is a killer.
Another example might be that there is a bomb in the room and the protagonist has to diffuse it. They must cut one of the wires, but they don’t know which one. The tension comes from incomplete information.
The amount of tension felt will also depend on how high the stakes are. If someone is going to die if they choose the wrong option, there is more tension than if they are just going to get a slap in the face.
The stakes are, more or less, what the character stands to lose if they don’t act or if they take the wrong action.
The importance of the problem at hand is usually defined by the stakes involved.
For example, if a person receives a letter saying “come to the warehouse alone or your daughter will die,” we can assume that this is an important matter. On the other hand, if a person receives a letter saying their power will be cut off if they don’t pay the bill, that is a lot less important.
When writing a scene, establish the stakes early on. If you wait until the problem presents itself to describe what will happen if the character fails, it can come off as a bit cheap.
It is better to foreshadow the problem by introducing the stakes and then encountering the problem later.
For example, suppose a person visits an underground casino. They may pass a guillotine on their way in. Someone mentions that they hope that thing never gets used. Now, if you write a scene where the main character has to gamble with their head in the guillotine, it will come off as more credible.
By introducing the stakes early, they are easily acceptable later on.
Get the Reader to Invest
By introducing tension into your story, you give the reader a reason to invest.
Tension is essential for a horror story because it keeps the reader hooked.
It is the source of emotion for the reader and it highlights all the major developments in the story.
Tension mainly comes from conflict and a story is really a series of conflicts. Therefore tension is indispensable to a story. You could say that a story is a series of tense moments strung together with plot.
The way you handle tension is going to be the main drive for a reader to keep on reading. If the tension is good and well-paced, you have a good story. Even if the ending is a little unsatisfying, people will still say your story is good if you handle the tension well.
On the other hand, if the tension is lacking or inauthentic, then it won’t matter if you have a great climax. Readers are unlikely to get to the end.
Generally, you want to have at least two main scenes of tension and maybe a few little ones in between.
The first main scene of tension will happen at the point of your story where the character first encounters a major conflict. For example, the first time they encounter a vampire. The second main scene of tension will happen at the climax. Will the antagonist be able to defeat the vampire?
There can be other scenes of tension throughout the story, but they should not outshine these two.
Also, there should not be too many scenes of tension. It’s great if you want to write an action-packed story, but there needs to be some breathing room.
There needs to be quiet scenes in between the tense scenes to give contrast. Use the quiet scenes to establish stakes and foreshadow events.
The Difference Between Tension, Suspense and Shock
Suspense is asking the question, “what is going to happen next?”
Tension is asking the question, “how are they going to get out of this situation?”
Shock is being surprised by something unpleasant.
Tension is, basically, getting ready for action. We create tension by setting up a situation where something bad is about to happen and we don’t know what form it will take.
Suspense happens when the reader is given some incomplete information and the stakes are established, and now they have to wonder what is going to happen.
Tension is temporary and happens on a scene-by-scene basis. Suspense is, generally, longer-lasting. It can span the entire story in some cases, or it can stretch over a few scenes.
Shock is simply when something unexpected happens. Usually, it is something repulsive or dangerous.
People will often confuse shock with tension because shocking scenes are often preluded by building tension. But you can have the tension-building without the shock.
One or two shocking scenes in a story can add spice, but if it is overused it just becomes cheap jumpscares.
You can read about How To Create Suspense here
Foreshadowing and the Promise of Conflict
Foreshadowing is intimately tied to tension-building because, through foreshadowing, we know that conflict is coming.
Once we know that conflict is going to happen, we now have the criteria for tension in that the character must act but doesn’t know exactly how.
Foreshadowing is giving the reader clues about what’s going to happen. By steadily revealing more and more information, you can control how you build the tension.
Suppose that we learn, in the story, that a serial killer has escaped from an insane asylum. The main character and his friends are staying the night at a hotel. Someone mentions that they hope the killer doesn’t come here because they are afraid to shoot a gun.
We have now foreshadowed that this character will have to shoot a gun at some point. That will create the tension. The character may hear a noise in the dark. They may draw the gun then argue with themself, and then put it away, only to draw it again.
This creates a lot of tension because the character must take action, but we aren’t sure when or how they are going to do it. There is also the chance that they will fail or give up. The stakes are high because they are in a life-and-death situation.
All of this is tension-building and it starts with foreshadowing.
You can read more about Foreshadowing here
Avoid Killing the Tension
There are a number of ways that tension can be ruined or fail to start.
The main way is by giving the reader too much information. If you write about a vampire and explain everything about what a vampire is and how to defeat one, then the story is going to be pretty boring.
At least, it won’t be much of a horror story. Maybe it could still be a romance or something, but that is not why we are here.
We have tension when we don’t fully know what a vampire is. We only have some clues and we hope the characters are up to dealing with it.
Another way of killing tension is to make either your characters or your monster too powerful. If your character has superpowers and can flatten a car with one hand, then it is going to be very difficult to convince the ready that there is any real danger.
Oftentimes, a writer will make their character too perfect and it removes all tension. If your character is good at everything, then there is no real struggle when they have to deal with a dicey situation, and there is no reason why the reader should care.
This also applies to the monster. If you have a creature that is practically invincible, it quickly becomes boring. If you have a werewolf that cannot be killed, runs faster than a horse, regenerates from all injuries and can bite through brick walls, then, what is there for the characters to do?
There is no tension unless your character has a chance of success. It may be a small chance, but there has to be some way that the character can defeat that werewolf. Then the tension comes from seeing if they can pull it off.
Tension-building is one of the main skills in writing horror stories. It is deceptively simple; you can learn the rules in a few minutes, but it takes years to master. It is also one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing horror or writing in general.
I hope this brief guide proves useful on your journey towards mastering tension. Happy writing.