Alida has a special announcement…

Coming in December: the Story Works Fiction school!

Online courses to help you become a better writer.


Word Essential Writing Tips return with a discussion of emotional tension, including an example to help you with the importance of hitching your reader’s emotional wagon to your character’s.

Need more information or a refresher on Stakes and tension? See the Stakes & Tension Writing Tip. And the SWRT on Stakes & Tension.


Prefer to read your tip?

Today, I’m talking about tension, but not stakes. If you aren’t sure what stakes and tension are, I have a video on that. I’ll put the link below. 

Tension is different from Stakes, it’s what the reader feels as the stakes go up for the character.

Now the key word here is FEELS.

Actually, there are 2 key words. The other key word is READER.

You know that as the stakes, what your protagonist stands to gain or lose, go up, your character is going to experience a wide range of emotions.

That range of emotions will vary depending on your story, naturally. There may be fear, grief, love, passion, rage, terror, adoration, frustration, relief, devotion… The point being that over the course of a story, we put our characters through a lot, both positive and negative, and they need to FEEL all that accordingly. Both the positive and the negative. 

If you do it right, your reader will experience those same emotions. That’s because as readers we empathize with the POV character, attaching our emotional wagon to hers. The reader may not wail with grief when your character does, but hopefully she feels a pang of grief in her chest,experiencing something of your character’s grief along with her. In other words, the degree of emotion the reader feels will not be the same as that depicted on the page. 

BUT, we writers do want our readers to feel along with our characters. And so do they. It’s the hallmark of an unforgettable story.

So how do you do that?

First, don’t allow yourself to use the word “feel” or “felt” in your story. That is the death of reader empathy. 

When your character needs to feel something in response to the action of a scene, get out of your head.

Get into your character’s body. 

With any characters, show us what he looks like. Puckered mouth? Clenched brow? Fists squeezed tight? 

With your POV character, go inside. You can use thoughts, sure, but don’t stop there. Think about those bodily things we can’t control, like an upset stomach, sweat, heart rate. Your character might have butterflies in his tummy, sweaty palms, and a pounding heart when he sees his crush across the gym, so remember, this applies to positive and negative feelings equally.

Let’s look at an example.

Mary looked out over the room. So many blank faces. Walter yawned and didn’t even bother to cover his mouth. Sarah picked at something stuck to her desk. Mary wasn’t even as interesting as a blob of old glue. “Take out some paper,” she said, her voice quavering on the S but recovering on the solid consonant sound of the P in paper. Why had she taken this job? She knew this wasn’t her area of expertise. The district must have been desperate to offer her the position. 

She walked to the blackboard and took up a piece of chalk. A little nub, really, barely enough to hold. She wrote in large block letters as neatly as she could, A, B, C, D. Her hand trembled and she had to write the D over again. She turned back to face the class. None of them had moved to get out paper. Not even the girl with the tiny glasses strapped to her head. Weren’t the kids in glasses supposed to be compliant? They hate me, she thought. Monsters, all of them. And her throat tightened the way it did when she was trying not to show emotion, not to let on that she really was a woman after all.

“Miss?” a boy in the front row. 

“Yes?” She looked down at him, waiting for his query.

“We don’t have paper. Teacher hands it out.”

Mary remembered something in her brief orientation about the kindergartners. They did not have personal school supplies. Everything had to be passed out and then collected.

We might instead write:  Mary looked out over the classroom of young faces and thought they all hated her. She felt more nervous standing before a room full of 5 year olds than she had during her entire dissertation defense. 

But if we did that, we’d be writing narrative summary instead of in scene, and we would deny the reader the fun of hitching his emotional wagon to Mary’s.

Get Your FREE Guide to reVision

Join hundreds of Word Essential Writers to receive inspirational writing tips and advice.

Thanks for subscribing! Look for a confirmation email in your inbox.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This