Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
July 28, 2023

Edge of their Seats

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

girl reading on the edge of her seat

Whether you’re writing a coming-of-age story, a serial killer thriller, a quilting cozy, a paranormal epic, a historical romance, or a children’s bedtime story, you want there to be enough tension to keep readers eagerly turning pages.

Donald Maass observed that people do this when they’re seeking relief from some kind of “apprehension, anxiety, worry, question, or uncertainty.” That means, even if you don’t want to make seven-year-olds feel uneasy before bedtime, you still want to make them curious.

And you want to sustain that curiosity -- that tension -- throughout the entire story.

This is the kind of curiosity that generates movie reviews about keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. These people can’t take a break because:

They’ve gotta know what’ll happen!

Will the Vikings prevail against the ocean’s fiercest storm?

Will the jealous ex show up before the long-awaited kiss?

Will the killer overhear the hostage signaling for help?

As writers, we need to raise questions. Leaving those questions unanswered -- whether they’re small ones that’ll be resolved in another few pages or big ones whose resolution will take until the end of the book -- is guaranteed to create tension within your readers.

And they’ll love you for it. (Oscar Wilde said of a story he was enjoying, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”)

Of course, the amount of tension will vary depending on your audience. Readers of different genres have different expectations regarding how much is over-the-top, and how little is yawn-worthy.

Keep in mind that the ultimate resolution of tension -- at which point your audience will feel satisfied even though they regret the story’s over -- has to wait until (yep) the end. Or very close to the end. Think of whatever question is resolved there as the dramatic focus of the story.

But this sure doesn’t need to be the ONLY source of tension in your book. You can pile on a whole lot more even while that big question is still pending. And if you’re not yet quite sure what your big question is:

Take a look at your genre.

If it’s a mystery, the question is generally “Will the mystery be solved?” (Justice is a nice outcome, as well, but that’s an even more prevalent question for legal thrillers: “Will justice be done?”)

If it’s a romance, the question is likely “Will they commit to living happily ever after?” For women’s fiction or coming-of-age, it’s pretty sure to be “Will this person come out better at the end?” For a thriller, “Will the good guys triumph?” And so on.

Since the answer to every one of those questions is almost always “Yes,” you might think it’d be difficult to sustain tension during the story. But the question your readers flat-out CAN’T answer (yet) is “How will this happen?”

So that’s what you need to answer as the story unfolds, bit by increasingly tense bit. Look at every scene and see how it contributes to the book’s (and the characters’) progress toward resolution. As long as they’re moving forward, it doesn’t matter -- in terms of building tension -- whether they succeed or fail in any given scene.

Sometimes things will turn out beautifully (until the next scene) and sometimes they’ll turn out horribly (until a few scenes later). Either way, you’re keeping your audience on the edge of their seats.

Because the best tension isn’t found in just a scene or two here and there.

It lasts even when things seem fine on the surface, with the characters happily roasting marshmallows in the park...because the reader still hasn’t gotten the ultimate reassurance that everything WILL be resolved.

That innate tension comes from your big Story Question.

And of course you can have dozens of smaller S.Q.s along the way, which will build even more tension. Not necessarily nail-biting, read-with-all-the-lights-on tension, but a sense of anticipation: what’s gonna HAPPEN?

We already know your character/s will have to struggle against something. Maybe it’s an enemy like the villain or the society they live in.

Maybe it’s an ally like their best friend, co-worker, parents, or team.

Maybe it’s a hostile environment, whether that’s nature or technology or the supernatural.

Maybe it’s themselves.

And it’s very likely more than just one of those entities. Anytime you’ve got uncertainty, you’ve got tension. Anytime you’ve got strain on the body, mind or heart, you’ve got tension. Anytime you’ve got a values conflict between or within people, you’ve got tension.

It’s a wonder anyone EVER gets a good night’s sleep, isn’t it? 🙂

But this is very handy for writers, because tension can arise from just about any situation. While your overall Story Question creates the longest arc, there can be all kinds of extra questions along the way that keep the tension building.

When you think of books that strike you as having an exquisite sense of tension, whether it’s “Will all life on earth be destroyed?” or “Will Jimmy win the blue ribbon?” you can usually see how this tension continued building throughout the story. And in fact, that leads to our:

Prize Drawing Question

What’s a book or scene that you remember as being especially good in terms of creating and/or building and/or sustaining tension? (There’s no wrong answer, because every reader has their own favorites.)

And somebody who comments will win free registration to “Tick... Tick... Building Tension,” an August 7-18 email class on doing exactly that. On Saturday evening I’ll have random dot org draw a name and post it waaaaay down at the end of the comments. How’s THAT for building tension? 🙂

* * * * * *

About Laurie

Laurie Schnebly Campbell

After winning Romantic Times’ “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Since then she’s taught online and live workshops including the one at groups.io/g/Tension, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. With 50+ titles there so far, she’s always hoping for more.

73 comments on “Edge of their Seats”

  1. The Trespasser by Tana French (actually, anything by Tana French). This novel has so many levels of tension woven throughout. The main tension is the murder mystery, but there is also a lot of internal conflict/tension between the female detective and her squad, some tension arises between her and her partner when they take a different approach to the crime, and social/class tension. It really keeps the reader unbalanced, guessing and worrying about who is safe, who is right, will good prevail.

    1. Lisa, wow, I remember the first time I ever read a Tana French book and marveling at how anybody could sustain that high a level of tension for that long -- it was the scariest thing I'd read in ages, all without any dragons or pandemics or bombs.

  2. I love reading your posts, Laurie, they're all like pep-rallies revving me up to write! And I love the Oscar Wilde quote you referenced, it's on the home page of my own website. 🙂

    A tense scene that stands out for me is one from a genre I don't usually read (Historical Christian Romance) but my critique partner wrote it and I was already invested in it because she'd been sending it to me for critique one chapter at a time. In the scene, the widowed heroine and her young son were picnicking with the widower hero and his young daughter when suddenly, the little boy stumbled while walking too close to a cliff's edge - and over he went.

    There were only a couple of pages from that moment to the end of the chapter, but she wrote them in a way that no matter how quickly I read, the boy was still dangling. She slowed everything down to show me what terror the heroine was experiencing and how she had to trust the hero to save her little boy because when she'd tried she'd made things worse. I remember holding my breath and flipping those pages until...there was nothing left to flip to because she hadn't written it yet. !!!! It was a genuine cliff hanger and gave me a visceral reaction that I remember to this day. Spoiler here: they all eventually landed safely on solid ground. But tense? Ho boy. Yes. Very much so.

    1. Wow, Debbie, that's the best use of a cliffhanger I've ever seen for building tension -- I never imagined it could happen in a romance, of all places. Let me know what to watch for on Amazon, will you? And you have GREAT taste in website quotes. 🙂

      1. This is a very unfair and judgmental comment about the romance genre:

        I never imagined it could happen in a romance, of all places.

  3. A scene I remember is from a book or maybe a short story by Cindy Gerard. Can't remember the title, but a SEAL had his foot caught in the rocks as the tide was coming in, and his girlfriend was supposed to be coming back with another air tank. I knew it would end out OK, and it's probably because drowning is a gemiome fear of mine, but my heart was pounding and I couldn't stop reading until he was safe.

    1. Terry, wow, I remember a similar scene in I thinks was a Suzanne Brockmann novel -- and it was so tense I started flipping pages, maybe because we share that same fear of drowning. But that's a perfect illustration of readers with different endurance levels!

  4. I’m very susceptible to tension, particularly in films. My go-to practice with tense scenes is to pause the film for a few seconds to collect myself. Good thing I mostly watch films alone. I even have to do it with comedies sometimes. I had to pause Bridesmaids, as an example, when Annie behaves all nerdly and earns the ridicule of her other bridesmaids. When a likable character does something usually unconscious to earn others’ dislike/distaste/ridicule, I find that boosts tension.

    1. Marcy, you're so right about the tension of a likable person earning the scorn of people they can normally count on -- that IS a good reason to step back and take some deep breaths. (And an enormous advantage of watching movies at home rather than the theater. 🙂 )

  5. I’m going go with To Say Nothing Of The Dog, which is actually a sort of time travel mystery by Connie Willis. It’s… how to describe it? Well, in addition to trying to sort out a potential paradox, our narrator/protagonist spends most of the book just trying to finally get some *sleep*. This has the dual effect of amplifying the tension involved in figuring out what’s causing the paradox, and also being uncomfortably relatable…

    1. Michael, that was an amazing book -- the way serious issues were blended with quirky humor, you never knew what was going to come next! Which, come to think of it, is exactly what creates good tension: we readers flat-out don't know what's coming next.

  6. Okay, I’ll say Asimov’s Foundation series. He was a master at building up tension before confrontations, then dishing out delightful and surprising, yet perfectly logical, twists in his resolutions.

    Don’t look for these in the sadly disappointing Apple movie version though.

    1. J.H., I've never read the Foundation series and now you've got me curious to try it -- he was sure good in other books, so it makes sense this'd be a winner as well. And thanks for the alert to NOT judge by the Apple version...definitely a case where "the book was better."

  7. Clive Cussler has a book called "The Chase". A detective is trying to find a murderer, but the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco hits right in the middle. It adds so much tension to the plot, because that scene changes from figuring out a mystery to just trying to survive minute by minute. The fact that it's in the middle of the book and not the usual climatic end really throws the reader into an edge of their seat moment.

    1. Amanda, I'd forgotten that book -- and you're right, it was SUCH an unexpected middle-of-the-story event. In books where we know the disaster is coming it's a kind of ticking clock, but when the clock strikes early it's a bolt out the blue. What's gonna happen???!!!

  8. Laurie, great post and your new class on creating tension sounds awesome. I guess my example will be the current book I’m reading. GUILD BOSS by Jayne Castle aka Jayne Ann Krentz. I started reading it then had to leave for an appointment and the entire time I was away, I wanted to get back to the story. It’s a romance so I know going in that there’ll be an HEA but I was yes, on the edge of my seat, 😊 wondering how they would resolve things. The hero had recued the heroine two months before the story started but then unknowingly dumped her into the lap of some bad guys. She escaped but blamed all her current troubles on him. I had to stop reading just as waltzed back into her life thinking how grateful she was going to be. I hated to stop because I wanted to know what she would say to him and how he’d respond. Not exactly a life-or-death situation but the author showed me just enough of the heroine to make me care about her so of course I wanted to see how this confrontation would go.

    1. Carrie, what a wonderful example of how situations that aren't life-or-death can be every bit as powerful in terms of tension as those where it literally IS life-or-death. And, boy, Jayne is always good at those...same as YOU are!

  9. I'm going waaaay back in my mind but to this day I still recall how I could not put "The Moon Pool" down. Written by A.E. Merrit in the early 1900s I believe. I first read it when I was in my early 20s. I bought a copy in later years and reread it several times. It's an oldie but a goodie, and if you think about it for a fantasy book it rivals Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells...some of my favorite fantasy authors. 🙂

    My email is catdancing@comcast.net Thank you!

    1. Christine, what fun to come across an early-1900s fantasy...I didn't even know those were being written back then, aside from the classics you mentioned, but it makes sense that readers wanted a lot more books than just those few writers could supply. 🙂

  10. The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager. A page-turner for me... because so many things were not adding up and I had to see if any of it would balance out. The main character was either off her rocker or dead spot on. Add in twists that I never could conceive, yet made perfect sense. Very tense and breath holding. Still holding to one of the best books I've read this year.

    1. Donna, wow, that sounds like a book-group winner...it's been a while since mine had one featuring an unreliable narrator, although a few years ago it seemed like they ALL were. We're meeting Sunday to talk about recommendations, so thanks for the tip!

  11. Hi Laurie,
    There are lots of books running amuck through my mind now, so picking just one is hard.

    Dean Koontz's Lightning forces itself to the forefront. Lots of great tension in that story.

    The Wilder quote is fantastic, and is so true!

    I am working on slowing scenes down to help build tension. It's an ongoing process.

    1. Ellen, I never thought of Dean Koontz as a suspense master but you're right; he can definitely keep readers on the edge of their seats! And slowing down -- or sometimes actually speeding up -- the pace is sure another good way of doing that.

  12. Hi Laurie,
    You make a great point that edge-of-your-seat tension is for any genre, but I especially liked your reference to Vikings. That made me think of a scene in Danegeld by Susan Squires. The Viking hero was left behind and surrounded by the enemy. I was flipping through those pages to find out what happened.

    1. Gina, trust you to find a great Viking example -- in fact, I was thinking of your earlier books when I wrote that line! And you're SO right about how tension can enrich novels in pretty much any genre; even when "suspense" doesn't appear in the category description.

  13. Three that stand out from my recent reads include The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O'Farrell, Finding Mrs. Ford, by Deborah Goodrich Royce, and The One in My Heart, by Sherry Thomas. I was completely caught up in/by all three, but I'd say even by the 75% mark, I still had no idea how the author was going to bring about a satisfactory conclusion. That to me is a true mark of sustaining tension.

    1. Meg, good observation about the 75% mark with no resolution being an outstanding example of sustained tension -- and how in speculative fiction, with its infinite variety of possible endings, the story question is easier to leave unanswered a whole lot longer!

  14. A genre I find good for this is science fiction, any variety. My favorite kind to read is speculative fiction, especially involving languages native to planets other than Earth. I've read several recently that feature a solitary human heroine on an alien planet who integrates herself well into the local society, or at least ingratiates herself well with it. The tension involves how badly the rescue mission from Earth will mess with the existing ecosystems, both social and natural. Since this is speculative, the endings are infinitely variable.

    1. Meg, this is so weird -- I just learned there were two different comments from two different readers named Meg, and here I'd been thinking it was one person who had two good thoughts back-to-back. But again, I sure like your "infinitely variable" description!

  15. Excellent book. The winemaker’s wife. By Kristin Hamel. One of my all time favorites

    1. Jan, you've got me curious about that book...I'm gonna look up Kristen Hamel for sure. Good way of building suspense right there; giving JUST enough detail to be intriguing and knowing the reader will be on the edge of their seat until they learn more. 🙂

  16. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky was a roller coaster of tension and curiosity for me. Instead of a murder mystery tension, most of what caused anticipation in the story was not knowing how reliable the narrator was. There was also the question of whether justice would be served. I even experienced internal tension when I found myself feeling more disdain for another character than for the murderer themselves. I loved your post Laurie!

    1. Candace, it's so cool when a classic-literature book shows how the secrets of building tension haven't really changed over the years! Sure, the action might be faster now than in Dostoevsky's day, but his inner turmoil was every bit as effective for edge-of-our-seats.

  17. Hey, Laurie, the book I'm reading right now (for the fifth or sixth time) is Chasing Morgan by Jennifer Ryan. The heroine is a psychic anonymously helping the FBI and the hero works for them. She's in his head and then she isn't due to the revealing of her name connected with her help capturing a criminal. Now her father and another bad guy is after her and the hero can't "find" her because of their lost connection. Lots of tension there as he blindly tries to save her. Of course, it all ends well but the stuff in between is a nail-biter.

    1. Marcia, any book that has you re-reading it for the fifth or sixth time HAS to be a winner -- don't we all dream of discovering (or creating) stories like that? In fact, that'd be a fascinating question for some future blog: what book have you read the most often?

  18. Laurie, the Debbie Moore scene in Ghost always gets my tension reaction when his spirit speaks /hugs to her. One can always have tension about the other spiritual self linked in flesh.. a loved one is always loved and hope after life and one could hope the scenes are realistic to keep you entertained and wanting to know how a loved one can make you feel after they are gone. I always loved this movie as it creates different tensions of concern, joy, sadness and peaceful love!

    1. Maria, that IS a powerful message -- and it's fascinating to imagine how that would come through in a book rather than a movie, although if the movie was based on a book I'd be awed by whatever writer came up with it. Maybe this is a case where "the movie was better!"

  19. I'm reading Colleen Hoover's WITHOUT MERIT. The tension between Merit and Luck (yes, Luck, not Luke) is palpable and yet I'm not sure if she'll end up with him or with her sister's boyfriend where there also is a lot of tension. I'm reading on to see which dude she's going to end up with and I have no clue at the moment. That's good tension, in my opinion.

    1. Patti, that's exactly the kind of tension I've come to expect from YOUR books -- and it's so cool when the author can keep us guessing. Like Ingrid Bergman said about Casablanca, the whole time they were filming she didn't know who she was going to wind up with. Whew!

  20. For me, it was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Every time I promised myself only to read until the end of the next chapter, she'd leave me wanting to know what came next and so I kept reading. I've always loved a good saga-ish type story and having the story start with a seven year old raising herself I wanted to know what was going to happen and was she guilty of murder.

    1. Annette, that's a wonderful description of what kept Delia Owens on the bestseller list for so long -- it was a VERY tough book to put down! Even if someone didn't care about whodunit or how to survive alone, there was so much else TO care about throughout the entire book.

    1. Candee, those are both edge-of-your-seat reads, for sure! I think of Gone Girl as what popularized unreliable narrators a few years back, and suddenly there were an abundance of those...but, boy, do they ever make for good tension. What's. Gonna. Happen???? 🙂

  21. For a good example of real-life tension, I'm off to a church-sponsored dinner that pairs 6-10 people who've never met with an unknown host...it's called Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and it's a fun evening; this'll be the third one and I've met lovely people already!

    The only down-side is not getting to see what other comments come in tonight, but I'll look forward to checking for more tomorrow. 🙂

  22. Hi Laurie. Just watched Oppenheimer and in the context of "tension", the movie does a tremendous job of building and keeping the tension throughout the running time of the film. In fact, all the points that you mention - hostile environment, values conflict, conflict between characters, will the world survive - come into play. And made it such a riveting watch. Thanks again, Laurie, for giving us these invaluable tips on storytelling.

    1. Adite, now you've got me wanting to see the movie! Other reviews have made me think "too sobering, too chilling," but thinking of it as a story with building suspense puts a whole new spin on it. Good thing there are plenty of theaters for what promises to be a long run.

    1. Bethany, she's one of the few authors my book group has chosen twice -- and, boy, you're right about her doing an incredible job with the suspense. Even when it's hard to see how the various threads will connect, there's still a sense of "gotta know what happens!"

  23. When I think of books that keep me on edge with tension, I think of Kate Quinn's The Rose Code, The Huntress, The Diamond Eye, but especially The Alice Network. The events are not always easy to read, but the way she raises the stakes, builds the tension, keeps me turning the pages both in dread and in fascination, and I'm satisfied at the resolution.

    1. Laurie, the only one of those I've read is The Alice Network, and your "not always easy to read" is a perfect description. Even when hoping it'll be safe to turn the page and see what's next, it's hard to imagine NOT turning the page...now I've gotta find more Kate Quinns.

  24. This is the number one thing I struggle with, particularly chapter endings. My characters need a break, man! LOL So I have to find my inner Cruella and think of a way to twist the knife. As far as a story with edge-of-seat tension, I can think of no better than everything I've read by Lianne Moriarty. I guess you'd call them domestic thrillers. Not only is the story question laden with tension, but just about every single page keeps you wondering.

    1. Luanna, Liane Moriarty is a great example of domestic thrillers -- I love your phrase. 🙂 There's always that big Story Question, and then all kinds of twists and turns to question in just about every chapter, some of which pay off fast and others which keep us wondering....

  25. I remember thinking that THE HUNGER GAMES was a brilliant example if rising tension and a compelling plot. It’s been so loooooong since I read it I can’t be more specific…

    1. Daphne, the other night I saw a trailer for a Hunger Games continuation / tribute / prequel / whatever movie and had forgotten what a compelling story that was. You're right about it being a pretty much constant source of tension, and on so many different fronts!

  26. Watership Down. The tension built steadily throughout the book. From a relatively low-stakes river crossing and a fight with rats to infiltrating the villain's stronghold, to fighting off the villain's invasion to protect their home, this book built tension and suspense like a gathering storm!

    1. Sharon, I’d forgotten what a good read that was! And you’re right about how the struggles got bigger and bigger, in a very credible way…anytime it seemed for a time that things were going to be all right, along came another challenge.

  27. Great post on tension! I read and write contemporary Christian romance and the last book I read was The Words We Lost by Nicole Deese. In the book, her female protagonist's job and livelihood are at dependent on her finding her late best friend's last manuscript of a series that made her friend famous and the publishing house where the main character works a lot of money. So she returns home where she hasn't been since the funeral and has to work with her lost love (another story there) to find this manuscript before she loses her job and everything's she's worked so hard for. But back home and working with her former love to locate the manuscript, she starts to work through her feelings for him. The tension for the reader (at least this one) was, what happens if she finds the manuscript? Will she go back to her job hundreds of miles away or will she stay and start over in her home town? It really kept me hanging on because her job was everything to her, so I was anxious to see how that resolved so she could have it all. 🙂

    1. Lori, your mention of “another story there” is a perfect description of yet another technique for building tension – even while the first thread of the story seems to be working, there’s a whole other thread where things aren’t going so well!

  28. The first book I ever remember really killing me with tension was It by Stephen King. I was so terrified reading it but yet I just couldn’t put it down. I read the entire book in one night and couldn’t really sleep (or take a shower) comfortably for about a week IYKYK lol! Tension really does have a impact and definitely moves an author to my must read list!

    Thanks for another great article!

    1. Margie, there’s nobody like Stephen King for building tension in a way that keeps people from sleeping comfortably. And, clearly, a heck of a lot of people feel that the tradeoff of “bad sleep” in exchange for “gripping read” is a good deal. 🙂

  29. Thanks for the inspiration, as always, Laurie! I also ask for book recommendations from other writers and grab them up to read myself. So many favourites! I'll go with Kelly Armstrong's Rockton series, recently recommended by a writer-friend and keeping me turning pages lately. It's got a tough-as-nails heroine (former cop) turns detective in a secret town in the Yukon. It's an urban myth taken to extremes, a place where people can escape impossible situations in their lives, and the characters who end up there are even more extreme than the place. So far, the books combine "Will the mystery be solved" + "Will justice be done (and how)?" with "Will they commit" in one package. I'm enjoying it and I'd recommend it to others.

    1. Marie, that DOES sound like an intriguing series! I just finished Louise Penny and was looking for something to replace Inspector Gamache, so Kelly Armstrong -- whose vampire MD series I enjoyed a while back -- should be a good bet!

  30. My tension-building choice is The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. In addition to the who-done-it aspect, the book presents some intriguing psychological issues.

    1. Susan, that first Alex Michaelides book was sure a grabber -- there aren't very many thrillers that combine such psychological suspense with a murder mystery AND throw in all those other references to the players' lives on top of it!

  31. My friend Dani is a bestselling author of romantic suspense, and she writes books which are on the edge of your seat and riveting.

    1. Denise, that's sure a good way to become a bestselling author -- the fact that Dani's able to write books "which are on the edge of your seat and riveting" sounds like she's cracked the code for delivering exactly what readers want. 🙂

  32. Just got back from a book-hunt for titles recommended below -- thanks to all of you who gave tantalizing descriptions of books I now want to read or RE-read -- plus the Oppenheimer movie, thanks to another promise of good-tension building. (Absolutely true.)

    For the prize-drawing, I fed random-dot-org the names of everyone who commented (well, not including me) to see who wins free registration to "Tick... Tick... Building Tension" and it generated #6, J. H. Talbott.

    Congratulations, J. H., and email me (via website BookLaurie.com / contact) for a groups.io invitation...those are going out next week!

  33. My example of tension isn't one scene. I'm reading a sexy cowboy romance by Maisey Yates. The hero has amnesia and the heroine who rescued him isn't telling him they know each other. It's working over several chapters and has been very entertaining.

    1. Laura, what a cool example of tension between people we know could & should be happy together, except for a pretty big obstacle standing in the way! There's not only the external tension (when/how will he learn the truth?) but also the internal (what'll happen then?)!

  34. I remember The Counte of Montecristo being very suspenseful. I was always wondering if he would be found out and there were many near misses that kept the suspense going.

    1. Trina, that's a wonderful illustration of how building suspense sure isn't a 21st- or even a 20th-century phenomenon. In fact, magazine authors who had to keep readers coming back for issue after issue were probably as skilled at that as WE are at keyboard shortcuts. 🙂

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