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Narrative Tension: 6 Strategies for Gluing the Reader

A professional man with curly black hair, in a business suit and red tie, is seen having an intense conversation on his mobile phone. He appears to be in a formal office setting, gesturing with his free hand as if emphasizing a point during his discussion


Narrative tension is a crucial element in building an effective narrative. It serves to keep the reader engaged and stimulate his or her interest page after page. This handbook will explore six key strategies for developing and maintaining narrative tension, giving writers the tools to make their works compelling and engaging.

1. Central Conflict

The first and perhaps the most important tool for generating narrative tension is the introduction and development of central conflict. Conflict is the engine of narrative: it can be internal, external, or a combination of the two. Internal conflict concerns the character's inner struggles, insecurities, conflicting desires, or fears. External conflict, on the other hand, occurs between characters or between a character and the external environment or circumstances.

To effectively use central conflict in creating tension, it is essential that the conflict be significant to the main character. It must be high stakes, prompting the character to react and fight for something important. In addition, the conflict must grow in intensity over the course of the narrative, driving the character to critical decision-making moments that expose his or her vulnerabilities and strengths.

2. Rhythm of Narration

The rhythm of the narrative is another vital tool for building tension. Well-managed pacing alternates between moments of intense action and moments of reflection, allowing the reader to assimilate events and build expectation. Variation in pace keeps the reader interested and prevents the story from becoming predictable.

Manipulation of pace can be implemented through the length of sentences and paragraphs, as well as through the choice of quick scenes in contrast to more detailed and slower ones. During moments of high tension, for example, the use of short, punchy sentences can increase the sense of urgency and immediate danger. Conversely, periods of character introspection can be narrated with longer, more complex sentences that reflect the character's mental and emotional state.

3. Character Development.

The bond the reader develops with the characters is crucial to the effectiveness of narrative tension. Well-developed characters with clearly delineated desires, fears, and challenges become real in the eyes of the reader, who cares for them and hopes for their victories. The growth of characters over the course of the narrative must be plausible and result from the trials they face.

Each character must have his or her own evolution, whether it is the protagonist or a secondary character. This growth must not only be internal but must be visible through the character's actions, decisions, and interactions. Consistency in the characters' behavior, coupled with their ability to change and adapt, helps to create a continuous and engaging tension.

4. Uncertainty and Suspense

Uncertainty and suspense are significant contributors to narrative tension. Keeping readers in the dark about certain key details or making them doubt possible outcomes of situations can keep them glued to the pages. The art of revealing information bit by bit is essential to keep the reader's interest.

To effectively build uncertainty, it is helpful to position the reader alongside the character, limiting information to what the character knows. This limited point of view increases tension as the reader discovers the reality of events as they unfold, experiencing surprises and twists along with the character.

5. Difficult Choices

Narrative tension can be heightened by presenting the character with difficult choices that test his or her values, desires, and abilities. These decisions must have significant and often lasting consequences that affect not only the character but also the entire course of the narrative. Difficult choices create moments of high tension as the reader waits anxiously to discover the character's decisions and their implications.

6. Conflict Resolution.

Finally, conflict resolution should be neither too simple nor predictable. A satisfactory conclusion is one that resolves the main conflicts in a way that is credible and consistent with the story, but leaves some questions open or problems unresolved, thus maintaining residual tension. This not only adds to the complexity of the narrative but also invites the reader to reflect further on the story after finishing it.


The strategies discussed in this manual represent fundamental techniques for infusing tension into narratives. The writer's skill in manipulating these elements will determine how effectively he or she can 'glue' the reader to the story, turning reading into an emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating experience.


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