Most Common Writing Mistakes: Not Enough Story Tension

How can you keep your story moving forward in scenes that don’t offer full-blown conflict? No doubt you’ve heard the aphorism, “No conflict, no story.” But your characters can’t be clawing each other’s eyes out in every scene. So how do you keep readers hooked until you can pull out the big guns? The answer is story tension.

Tension is the threat of conflict. It’s conflict’s calmer—but no less potent—cousin. For a story to properly work, tension must be present in every scene.

This, however, can be easier said than done. Sometimes we can zap a story’s tension without even realizing it.

This can happen as the result of a couple of factors:

1. A threat too easily resolved.

2. A threat too far distanced.

3. An undefined character goal.

If your story is suffering from any of these ailments, your tension is going to flatline. Why should readers fear the boogeyman that might be around the corner if they know that:

a) the protagonist is going to easily defeat him,

b) the protagonist has run too far and too fast for the boogeyman to ever catch up, or

c) the protagonist has no goal that will be endangered should the boogeyman happen to catch up after all?

Story Tension, Pfft!

Let’s take a look at an example of what can happen to your story if you’ve let the tension drain out and puddle around the protagonist’s feet.

Margie looked from the hunting knife in her hands to the hairy boogeyman she had just easily slain. The rest of the boogeyman horde ran, yelping, around the corner of the barn, probably distracted by her clever cat Perky. Everybody knew boogeymen didn’t return to the scene of the attack for twenty-four hours. That gave her plenty of time to get Auntie Amy and her baby cousin Ferb into the jet-powered racer. They could clean the house, pick up groceries, maybe even finish the dress Auntie was sewing for her. Come morning, they’d head out. Even if the boogeymen did return sooner than expected, Margie could just kill them like she had this one.

Want a yawn burger and a side of snores to go with that story? Margie obviously has everything under control, so what’s to keep readers from turning on the TV and looking for a character whose straits are a little more dire?

Story Tension Galore!

Let’s try again. We’ll raise the stakes, beef up the threat, shorten the timeline, and give Margie an important goal.

Margie looked from the hunting knife in her trembling hands to the hairy boogeyman she had somehow managed to slay. The rest of the boogeyman horde ran, roaring, around the corner of the barn, probably to devour her beloved cat Perky. Everybody knew boogeymen never left the scene of attack until all living mammals were dead. They’d be back within seconds. She ran for the house. She had to get Auntie Amy and her baby cousin Ferb out of here. She could only pray they would be able to get the old jalopy started. Their only chance was to strike out across the desert. Without food or water, they would be lucky to make it as far as Gaptooth Well, but if someone didn’t warn the settlements, every person in the territory could fall prey to the boogeys.

Isn’t that a little better? Nothing actually happens in this scene. There’s no conflict. No arguing. No fighting. No clawing out of eyes. But there’s plenty of tension, since readers know the threat is both real and imminent. Some super-duper, nail-biting, gooseflesh-raising conflict is just around the corner, and the ratcheted tension in this scene will ensure readers turn the page to face it head on—just like Margie.

>>Click here to read more posts in the Most Common Writing Mistakes Series.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the biggest cause of not enough story tension? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. too much description. I like mine distributed amongst the dialogue and action. Large chunks tend to make me skip ahead, especially if it’s overkill.

  2. Description is important to any story, since it’s the foundation on which the reader’s imagination builds. But, you’re absolutely right, it has to be finessed. Modern readers aren’t going to put up with paragraphs of needless setting description.

  3. Too many details. Rather than jut saying, “Mike tied the rope in a knot” and instead giving endless details about how the knot was tied. Unless it’s a how-to manual or unless I have an interest in rope knotting, I’d rather not be bored with it all.

  4. This is particularly true when the info isn’t necessary to move the plot forward. Occasionally, you’ll have a complicated techno-thriller or something that needs a lot of specific details to progress the plot. But, more often than not, simple is better. We have to leave some blanks for our readers to fill in.

  5. Thanks for a good post. You are gifted in getting writers to think about things they might otherwise have not. Now, to spread some tension in my writing… 🙂

  6. Glad you enjoyed it. Happy tensioning!

  7. “Modern readers aren’t going to put up with paragraphs of needless setting description.” — K.M. Weiland

    When Beethoven wrote his Razumovsky quartets, his musicians complained that the long sections were too difficult. Beethoven reportedly responded, “They are not for you, but for a later age.”

    In that vein: “I do not write for modern readers, but for future readers.”

  8. There’s truth to that, definitely. There are out-of-vogue things I love about the windiness of classic writers – and other others things I’m very glad *are* out of vogue. At the end of the day, the most important reader you can write for is yourself. Please that reader, and the rest will fall into place as it should.

  9. Thanks, I needed this – just had someone tell me my scenes needed more tension. What slows it down for me is too much backstory, and too much “Laura Ashley moments.” Unless it’s important to know what all 17 ruffled pillows on the bed look like because later the one the victim bled into goes missing(and if she’s the decorator, I’d vote for justifiable homicide), I don’t CARE what each one of them looks like.

  10. Backstory is always an easy pitfall to stumble into, since, as writers, we loooove our backstory. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves or our readers is just write it all down, get it out of our systems, then delete it and get back to the real point of the scene.

  11. Unlike able characters. This problem happens in horror movies a lot where as an audience member you don’t have any empathy for the characters. When they remade House of Wax one of the best parts was when Paris Hilton’s character died. There was no tension because you knew most of the characters were going to be slain and you couldn’t care less.

    Great blog post!

  12. Great point. If readers have no emotional investment in a character, they’re not going to experience any of the tension that results from fearing for that character’s outcome. This is why it’s so important to take the time in the first quarter of the book to build characters and help readers understand what’s at stake for these people.

  13. Great article. Did Perky survive;)

  14. Backstories are magical resources. I have many worlds, civilizations, species, and characters all needing to be documented just so I can keep track of everything. I was going to make an encyclopedia, or wiki, with the information believing fans might like to see it someday.

    Then I had a revelation about one of my characters: how she came to have and play a harp. I realized that all of my backstories could themselves be books. What an incredible treasure are those stories and the many possibilities for conflict and opportunities to not zap the tension.

    • James Ross says

      Backstory is often the better story. After all, if you have a single chain of events that explains the entire character, isn’t that likely to be a good story? Why is an action heroine pretending to be a scared washerwoman and working for a man with a very different set of values to the one she was raised for? If that’s all in one chain of events, it’s no doubt going to be pretty good, neh?

  15. I hate it when something important is about to happen between characters, then the writer goes off into a page or two of backstory before the action continues. I could scream. Keep the backstory for another time.

  16. VERY nice! 🙂 (I am applauding, but you can’t see it.)

    This was worth tweeting! 😉 hehe

  17. Very helpful! I recently had to go in a change a few scenes were the threat was dealt with too quickly. After reading this, I think there is another scene I need to go back and revise.

    So thank you for this!!

  18. Two types of tension that always die for me: 1, when everyone but the protagonist and the reader know something, and they just aren’t saying it — it feels entirely too much like the author and characters are aware of a reader on some level, that there’s no good reason for them not to talk about a thing except that the reader isn’t supposed to know it yet; and 2, when characters inexplicably dismiss the truth when handed to them. I can understand if it’s part of their nature to dismiss a certain person’s opinions, but when Jack values Jill’s insights the entire story right up until the crucial, plot-saving truth is given to him, and then Jack thinks Jill is being silly or mislead, the book generally ends up across the room. Inexcusable. Poor, lazy writing. If you can’t find a better way to rewrite that, find a different job.

    Maybe that’s just me.

  19. @Eleni: Poor Perky. We can only hope! 😉

    @Lester: Backstories are authors’ secret superpowers. They create so much more impetus and subtext for our stories, and sometimes they’re complicated enough in their own right to take off into new stories of their own.

    @Denise: Backstory dumps in the middle of actions scenes don’t belong, if no for other than reason than their sheer lack of logic. How many of us are going to stop in the middle of a life-threatening situation to mull about the day our mother tried to force feed us creamed spinach?

    @Musings: Applause is always welcome – even silent applause. 😉

    @Ruth: Nothing is worse than getting a reader all worked up for a tense scene, only to have it end in a fizzle. Been there, done that myself!

    @Daniel: It’s not just you. Not only are instances like these gimmicky, they also fly in the face of common logic. Readers will forgive many faults, but not willful stupidity.

  20. When there’s not really a so-called “ending” to the story but another set of minor setbacks that must be explained in the next book or the book after that. I much more likely to follow a series if they end the major problem in the first book and then develop another major problem in the next one.

  21. Cliffhangers have their good points and their bad points – but, for the most part, I wholeheartedly agree with you. The frustrations outweigh the positive incentives to keep reading.

  22. One thing that can cause a story to lose tension is too much detail. If a scene moves too slowly, the reader’s attention may wane and the sense of urgency could be lost.

  23. I think revealing all the book’s secrets at once kills the tension. After all, if you know how the story is going to end – why keep on reading?

  24. Definitely. Whenever we reveal one secret, we need to hint at another – and another and another, right up until the end of the story. Once a reader has no more secrets to discover, he has no reason to keep reading.

  25. I’ve had it happen in the opposite way, too. I’ve read books where main characters got killed off all the time, and I ended up feeling distanced from them and expecting them to die all the time. I think in writing you have to strike a good balance.

  26. Definitely. If we “numb” readers, so to speak, with too much horror, that kills the tension just as surely as if everything is always sunshine and morning glories.

  27. Kill the waffle.

  28. Waffle?

  29. Tension killers; too much description, too many adjectives and adverbs.

  30. Description is a huge one. We can get so much more bang for our buck by letting the context speak for itself, with the help of well-chosen details, wherever possible.

  31. I find this sentence very funny: “But your characters can’t be clawing each other’s eyes out in every scene” Snickers.

    “1. A threat too easily resolved.”

    Yep. I didn’t realize this until 20 chapters later that I could have created more tension, by not killing off the first major antagonist, Kar. Now I have to go back and fix it. An antagonist thats also a pov, who can make a horse and cart turn flat, and fold it up into a neat little package dissevers better.

    So much revising/editing it stinks when you realize your wip is still a pile of donkey dung, and needs much more work. xP -Face plant into keyboard-

    That brings up a thought, I think after a draft is done it’d be a good idea to go and take hard look at the characters in it and see if they deserve better, less, or a delete. I’d say that antagonist do not get enough love, with out them is there much of a story?

    Ok I went off topic there a bit sorry. Ooh, tension! Tension is a tease, it’s like something is going to happen, but doesn’t quiet yet and the characters nerves get frayed …. and hopefully the readers too. Right?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. Antagonists deserve more love. They’re inherent to the conflict. Sounds like your Kar has a lot of potential!

  32. Excessive detail really, really hurts a story by modern standards. I purchased “The Once and Future King” some months ago, and I find it almost painful to read.

    I respect T. H. White, and I hope I can fully read his magnum opus one day… but the way he describes in excruciating detail how people worked with hay, castle architecture, and even every item in the place where they keep falcons, in the very first chapters, has given me a snorefest.

    The main plot taking too long to kick off is another reader repellent. In Graceling, I’m not sure if the main plot was about fighting the evil uncle king that had turned the main character into his assassin and enforcer, or dealing with the other king whose power was to be able to charm anyone.

    And of course, the infamous Show-Don’t-Tell, also from Graceling. For around the first third or half of the book, we read about how the main character has been trained to be the best warrior ever… yet she rarely shows it. Save for a few guards she easily drugs and a character she quickly knocks out in the first chapter, a small time ruler she easily intimidates later on, a bit of wrestling with the character she KO’ed in the first chapter, up until the part I read, she isn’t in any real combat situation that proves she’s indeed the big badass she’s been claimed to be. Heck, even when her evil uncle king calls her to intimidate her himself, she brags about how she could easily fight every guard in the throne room and then kill him with a thrown dagger taken from a guard… and then she leaves. All talk, no action.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haven’t read Once and Future King yet (although that has to be one of the best titles ever!). Graceling was definitely uneven in its plotting and theme.

  33. I love how your example demonstrates that foreshadowing often creates tension—in this instance, by showing what will/could happen to the characters after this particular scene.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Foreshadowing is a tremendously powerful tool. It can accomplish all kinds of nifty little tricks like this! We definitely can’t afford to overlook it.


  1. […] K.M. Weiland (best selling author of Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel) explains that the old saying, “No Conflict, No Story,” is often undermined by writers in three ways: […]

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