Guest post: “Narrative Tension”

I’ve had some questions about fiction writing and I wanted to provide a guest post on a basic technique, that of narrative tension. This is by Bill Johnson, the author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a popular writing workbook available in trade paperback on Amazon and on Kindle. He’s the webmaster of Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing! at

Narrative tension is the tension story characters feel about unresolved and unfulfilled events and needs. When characters are blocked from gaining what they want, they experience narrative tension. When acting to gain something increases a character’s pain (because the story/storyteller increases the obstacles) a character in a story experiences increasing narrative tension.

In a nutshell, a storyteller creates a character who can’t refuse to act because of the cost of inaction, but there’s also a price to pay for taking action.

Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, is a great example. To act on his love for Juliet is to turn against his clan and family; to not act on his feelings for Juliet is to violate his sense of what’s important. But any action he takes increases his pain.

Romeo is a great character because he won’t allow even death to block him from being with Juliet.

A novel (or memoir) that lacks narrative tension fails to be compelling. It can appear to be episodic; events happen, but there’s no tension around an outcome to these events. Characters act, but there’s no tension or drama generated around their actions.

Suggesting tension for characters is only the first step in generating narrative tension. The second step is to write in a way that this tension is transferred from a story’s characters to its audience. That’s why the introduction of a story’s promise around an issue of human need is so important. When a story’s audience identifies with a story’s characters and goals, that audience can also be led to internalize tension over whether those characters achieves their goals.

While a great plot can help hook an audience around finding out what will happen next, when an audience has internalized a story’s narrative tension, that audience needs to experience a story’s resolution and fulfillment for the relief of the tension created by the storyteller.

The greater the tension, the more compelling the novel.

This is why keeping a character’s purpose in a promise off stage can be so lethal. That lack can lead to weak or absent narrative tension.

Generating narrative tension, then, begins with the opening sentences of a novel or memoir.

Narrative tension can be compared to an electrical current that runs through a story. The weaker the current, the less voltage a story transmits to an audience. The greater the current, the greater the spine tingling excitement experience by an audience.

When I’ve worked with or talked with agents, a lack of narrative tension is their number one reason for rejecting novels.

If you can create a novel (or memoir) with a main character in a deep state of narrative tension, you’re on your way to creating a compelling story.

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