Readers Thrive on Tension – So Make It Worse

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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.

Setup

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?