Readers Thrive on Tension – So Make It Worse


I heard about an exercise to increase tension in which participants wrote a situation, then were told 10 times in succession to make the circumstances worse. Sometimes, we writers are too quick to be satisfied with the tension we’ve created. But the exercise showed participants—short of death—the payoff for the reader could be greater.

Let’s see how this exercise might work while formulating an idea for a short story.


Exhausted from her long shift at the hospital, Leah rides a bus to the park-and-ride lot. All she wants is to relax at home with her son, Grayson, and husband, Anton.

image by Unsplash
image by Unsplash

First Draft

  1. A man boards the bus at the next stop and plops down beside Leah. She struggles to remain pleasant to the windbag, then he invites her to dinner. She says she’s married. Uncomfortable from his huffy reaction, she stays on the bus until he gets off. She’s an hour late getting home.

Make It Worse

  1. [Nix the windbag.] A blonde boards the bus, travels the aisle, and sits beside Leah. Leah realizes the woman is Dilly Cross, the girl who stole her boyfriend in high school. Dilly opens the conversation, saying Leah looks worn out. Then she asks what has happened in the last fifteen years to make Leah look ten years older than her age. When Leah is speechless, Dilly tells Leah she’s a psychiatrist at a mental institution and will be glad to help Anton check Leah into a program. Startled, Leah wonders how Dilly knows Anton’s name.

Make It Worse

  1. Before Leah can respond, Dilly peers at Leah and asks how Grayson, is enjoying third grade at Anderson Elementary School. Leah demands to know how Dilly knows about Grayson. Dilly says her son, Finch, is in Grayson’s class. Finch is the boy who’s been bullying Grayson. Leah confronts Dilly about Finch’s bullying. Dilly suggests Leah stop making complaints about Finch at the school office—if Leah knows what’s good for Grayson.
image by PhotoLizM
image by PhotoLizM

Make It Worse

4.  Dilly says she’d hate Grayson to meet with an accident. Finch can go berserk. Alarmed, Leah demands to know what Dilly means. Dilly replies the only sure way Grayson won’t have an accident is for Leah to supply Dilly with drugs from the hospital where Leah works. Leah realizes Dilly’s presence on the bus is no accident.


image by LenaSercikova
image by LenaSercikova

Make It Worse

5.  Dilly laughs at Leah’s stunned expression. “Relax. I don’t want drugs. But I am tired of stealing your men from you.” Shocked, Leah says she doesn’t understand. Dilly says Anton was easy to seduce, but now he doesn’t want her anymore. With a wild-eyed gaze, Dilly says, “No one dumps me.” Leah begs Dilly to reveal why she’s bent on ruining Leah’s life. Dilly replies, “Your mother should’ve never taken Daddy away from my mom and me.” Leah claims Dilly is lying. Dilly raises an eyebrow. “Don’t worry–darling sister—I’m through taking your men, because as of this afternoon, I’ve got Grayson. Finch will enjoy his cousin. You’ll never find us or see Grayson again. He’s mine.”

Don’t stop. Make the tense situation in your story worse. Click to tweet.

What tips do you have to increase tension?

Enliven Your Dialogue with This Easy Exercise

image by geralt
image by geralt


What you can learn about dialogue from actual conversations is amazing.



Recall a discussion you’ve had that contained conflict. Write the dialogue down as close to what was said as you can.

I had this dialogue with my husband this morning:

image by USA-Reiseblogger
image by USA-Reiseblogger

Me: (descending the stairs) “Are you going to eat breakfast?”

John: (reading from his iPad) “Yes.”

Me: (after performing breakfast and other tasks while he continues to read his iPad) “Well, I’ve done all the tasks I can think of down here.” (my foot on the bottom step) “Call me when you’re ready to have breakfast.”

John: (closing his iPad cover) “I’ve been waiting on you.”

Me: “Me? When I come downstairs that means I’m ready for breakfast. I’ve been doing tasks down here until you were ready.”

John: (rising from chair) “I’ve been waiting on you. You haven’t cut your apple yet.”

Me: (pointing to table) “It’s already on the table.”

John: (looking at apple slices in a baggie) “How was I supposed to know you had apple slices in the refrigerator?”

Me: “I’ll try to be more specific when I come downstairs for breakfast in the future.”

What did I learn from this dialogue?


image by yank_sobirova
image by yank_sobirova

1. We don’t always say what we mean. I asked if he was going to eat breakfast because that’s the question he usually calls upstairs to me. Sometimes I skip breakfast. But he always has breakfast. What I wanted to know was whether he was ready for breakfast.

2. We use our actions to speak for us. I’d hurried downstairs because I didn’t want to keep my husband waiting for breakfast. When he didn’t rise immediately, I retrieved our breakfast items and performed other tasks. All obvious activities showing I was ready to eat. Wrong.

3. We create conflict through what we say. Instead of asking him if he was ready, I brought out my big gun. I told him to call me when he was ready.

4. We may speak truth from our perspective, but it doesn’t mean we’re right. John was waiting on me, but he was basing this on his expectation I would cut apples.

5. We can choose to keep the conflict going. I had ammo in my gun: I had apple slices on the table.

6. We become easily defensive by tone. When I pointed to my apple slices with my ta-da! attitude, John shifted blame. How was he supposed to know I was ready if I didn’t cut apples?

7. We may understand the other person, but we don’t want to give in. I could’ve said, “I should’ve told you I was ready.” Instead, my apology was a droll statement.

Much subtext occurred during our dialogue. It also showed the woman wanting the man to be in tune to her and know her wants. It depicted the man enjoying his “newspaper” and expecting the woman to tell him what she wants.

Use this exercise to create models for better story dialogue. Click to tweet.

What have you learned from actual dialogue that you used in a story?

Readers Have Goals Too – Satisfy Them

image by zimnijkot0
image by zimnijkot0

In Stephen James’s article, “Tension & Release” (Writer’s Digest – January 2015), he tells us: “Readers want to wonder, worry, anticipate, and hope.” To understand this better, I’ve tested these readers’ goals against the story of “Rapunzel” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

For each turn in the story, here are the reasons I thought they satisfied readers’ wants.

Repunzel and Readers’ Wants

  1. A couple has long wished for a child, but to no avail.

Hope this situation will change.

  1. image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
    image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

    One day, from a window, the woman saw field salad called repunzel growing inside a nearby walled garden belonging to a feared sorceress. The woman longed so much for the repunzel that she became deathly ill.

Wonder how this new goal will affect her baby goal.

Worry. Getting field salad + sorceress’s garden = bad happenings.

  1. The woman’s husband, frightened his wife will die, climbs over the wall to obtain repunzel. 

Worry he’ll get caught.

  1. The husband safely delivers the repunzel to his wife. After she eats it, her desire for more is threefold what it was before. So her husband makes a second trip into the walled garden.

Anticipate he’ll surely get caught this time.

Worry what horrible thing will happen to him?

image by carol round
image by carolround
  1. The sorceress catches him. He begs mercy. She says he can have all the repunzel he wants, if he gives her their first child.

Wonder whether he’ll at least negotiate something better for the sake of his child.

  1. The husband agrees. The sorceress takes the child, names her Repunzel, and later puts her in a tower having only one high window. The sorceress visits the child by climbing Repunzel’s hair.

Worry this child will live forever by herself with nothing to do.

Hope someone will come and save her from such a life.

  1. Years later, a prince hears Repunzel singing and wants to join her, but there’s no door. Her singing touches him, and he comes everyday. Then, he sees the Sorceress climbing Repunzel’s hair.

Anticipate. He’ll be able to climb up to Repunzel, and they’ll fall in love.

  1. image by LouAnna
    image by LouAnna

    Repunzel slips up and mentions the prince to the sorceress.

Worry what the sorceress will do.

  1. The sorceress cuts off Repunzel’s long braid, ties it to a hook, and takes her away. Repunzel suffers greatly.

Wonder how the prince will find Repunzel.

  1. The next day when the prince climbs the braid, the sorceress is there and curses him. Overcome with grief, he survives falling to the ground, but is blinded by thorns and is miserable.

Wonder and worry that a happy ending won’t happen.

  1. Years later, he hears the princess singing, he sees her misery, they embrace, her tears heal his blindness, and so they live happily ever after.

I think satisfying readers’ wants to wonder, worry, anticipate, and hope is crucial for any size or type of story.

Satisfy these readers’ 4 goals and have them turning pages. Click to tweet.

Which, if any, of these readers’ wants caused you to stop reading a book? Why?