How Writers Can Create Narrative Tension

by | Jan 23, 2012 | Book Marketing Basics

Reading Time: ( Word Count: )

Guest post by Bill Johnson:

Narrative tension is the tension characters in a novel feel about unresolved and unfulfilled events and needs. When characters in a story are blocked from gaining what they want, they experience narrative tension.  When acting to gain something increases a character’s pain (because the story/storyteller increases the obstacles) a character in a story experiences increasing narrative tension.

Romeo and Juliet (1954 film)

In a nutshell, a storyteller creates a character who can’t refuse to act because of the cost of inaction (either internal or external), but there’s also a price to pay for acting.

Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, is a great example of narrative tension.  To act on his love for Juliet is to turn against his clan and family; to not act on his feelings for Juliet is to violate his sense of what’s important to him.  But any action he takes increases his pain.


Image by Getty Images via @daylife

A novel (or memoir) that lacks narrative tension fails to be compelling.  It can appear to be episodic; events happen, but there’s no tension around an outcome to these events.  Characters act, but there’s no tension generated around their actions.

Suggesting tension for characters is only the first step in generating narrative tension. The second step is to write about this tension in a way that it is transferred from a story’s characters to a story’s audience.  That’s why the introduction of a story’s promise around an issue of human need is so important.  When a story’s audience identifies with a story’s characters and goals, that audience can also be led to internalize tension over whether a character achieves his or her goals.


Image via Wikipedia

Narrative tension can be compared to an electrical current that runs through a story.  The weaker the current, the less a story transmits to an audience. The greater the current, the greater the involvement of an audience.

While a great plot can help hook an audience around finding out what will happen next, when an audience has internalized a story’s narrative tension, that audience needs to experience a story’s resolution and fulfillment for the relief of the tension created by the storyteller. Then and only then is a story compelling.

Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, which is available on Kindle at Essays about popular novels, movies, and plays can be found at

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. Rachelle Ramirez, Certified Story Grid Editor

    But how does one make a story compelling? This doesn’t really answer the question of how to transfer tension from the character to the reader. It simply defines narrative tension.

    • Penny Sansevieri

      Hi Rachelle, if you’ve never checked out Jane Friedman’s blog, I definitely encourage you to. She publishes lots of great writing advice that is super helpful!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *