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?

8 thoughts on “Readers Thrive on Tension – So Make It Worse

  1. I love this. Every time I write a chapter, I try to think of all the ways things can go wrong.

    1. That’s a good practice, Katheryn. I was worsening the plot for a short story, but worsening circumstances for a chapter has to fit in with the overall plot, unless we’re willing to take the story in a new direction. But still, even in a chapter we can make matters worse without affecting the overall plot.

  2. Great post, Zoe! You’ve got quite some imagination there! I see why your stories are so good.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Tanya. We don’t have to make the worsening as sinister as I did for the short story. Even in humorous stories we can make situations worse, possibly making them funnier.

  3. I have added more drama to my current work in progress. Thanks for the tips. 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Mimi. I’m glad the post encouraged you to add more tension. You mentioned drama. My example could be written out with too much drama to the point of melodrama; we want to add tension, not melodrama. I hope this clarifies.

  4. Wow! That is tense! Good writing–and thanks for sharing the technique.

    1. I wonder, Peggy, what would have happened if I’d continued on to 10 rewrites like the class I heard about.


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