Narrative Tension

Do you understand the ins and outs of narrative tension? The following guest post by Bill Johnson will tell you everything you need know.

Narrative tension is the tension characters in a novel feel about unresolved and unfulfilled events and needs. When characters in a story 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 acting.

Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, is a great example of narrative tension. 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 to him. 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 generated around their actions.

Suggesting tension for characters is only the first step in generating narrative tension. The second step is to write about this tension in a way that it is transferred from a story’s characters to a story’s 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 a character achieves his or her 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 story’s 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 story.

Narrative tension can be compared to an electrical current that runs through a story. The weaker the current, the less a story transmits to an audience. The greater the current, the greater the involvement of an audience. Novels that fail to generate narrative tension often operate as an on-going series of events and fail to be compelling.

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 with a main character in a deep state of narrative tension, you’re on your way to creating a compelling story.

Bill Johnson has a blog about life and the problems that arise when a writer makes a main character in a novel an extension of him or herself at

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