Laura Howard: Creating Tension with Jen Zeman


Creating Tension with Jen Zeman

Happy Friday! I am so thrilled to present a post by my Twitter and Writer Unboxed pal, Jen Zeman. Like me, Jen is not yet published, but we have a great time talking writing and are a prime example of the relationships you can create by nurturing your Social Media community.

The Core of any Story

Tension within your plot is known as conflict and it is the core of any story.  Without conflict, a story will fall flat and readers will lose interest quick.  The more conflict you have in your story, the more your story will grab readers’ attention and have them clinging to the pages for more.

Simply put, conflict is a problem arising to challenge your protagonist to act in some fashion.  Literary agent Don Maass, in his book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, states once you have conflict in your plot, the next essential element is to complicit the conflict.  Make it worse – for your main character, for everyone.  Maass states:  “What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate.” 

Make the Conflict Feel Familiar

 An example would be a wife discovering her seemingly perfect husband of thirty years has had a second family on the side for the past twenty years.  To make this conflict even more spectacular, up the ante but still make the conflict feel familiar to readers.  

Sure, you could have the wife hide in her bedroom for a week crying her eyes out, but how exciting is that?  Your readers will close the book and never pick it up again.  

Have Tension on Every Page

Increase the tension instead – have tension on every single page.  Increasing the tension means the wife uses her secret assassin training by driving her car through the front door of the second family’s house (while the husband is there, of course), and her shooting up the place like a fireworks factory on fire!  

Okay, this was extreme, but you get the point.  The wife’s anger will seem familiar to the reader because surely most would be equally unhinged if they were in the wife’s position.  Your readers will excitedly turn the pages when the tension is piled this high.  

So look at your story again.  Find at least ten places within your manuscript where tension can be increased and do something unexpected in each instance.  Your readers will thank you.

Jen is a YA author working on her debut novel.

Other Donald Maass books I've read and recommend include:

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

The Fire in Fiction


  1. Hi Laura!
    HAHA loved your example story about the wife and husband :) Great advice!

  2. Donald Maass is an excellent resource -- I've read all of his books and have used the workbook that goes along with WTBN -- excellent exercises! xx, Lauren


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