“Tension is the Mother of Fiction” ~Jerome Stern



According to Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction (W.W. Norton and Company 2000), “When tension and immediacy combine, the story begins.” Stern advises the writer that tension is created out of conflict: between characters, between the characters and forces of nature, society, or vampires. Characters may even have conflict with themselves. Tension is integral to all aspects to storytelling. Tension is part of what involves the reader in the story—“the more you get readers to feel and visualize the scene, the more vivid the tension….” (Stern) Tension may resolve, end, or continue at the end of the story, but the story remains memorable after the cover is closed on it if the tension lingers.

Alice La Plant, in The Making of a Story—A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), defines tension as “the juxtaposition of two opposing forces.”

My dictionary (www.dictionary.com) lists two definitions that fit:
—mental or emotional strain; stress
—situation or condition of hostility, suspense, or uneasiness

In his Revision & Self-Editing—Techniques for transforming your first draft into a finished novel, James Scott Bell (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008) says “modulating tension is one of the keys to writing fiction.”


Stern identifies suspense “as the way you get your audience to worry.” It’s essential to any narrative; it’s the stakes. Suspense is that element that keeps your reader wondering what will happen next—“hoping for one resolution and fearing others.”

LaPlant defines suspense as “The state of being uncertain, unresolved. The sense that something of dramatic importance is about to happen.”

Dictionary.com says: a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.


LaPlant links conflict to tension: “Tension arising from opposite forces that is considered necessary by some to sustain a reader’s interest.”

The conflict—crisis—resolution model is the most predominant model for story telling. This is the model that defines a story as having an arc, or the Freitag triangle, named for the 19th century literary critic who developed the theory. Freitag identified five stages of the short-story: 1) the beginning exposition where the characters, setting and situation are introduced; 2) the rising action where the characters feel increasingly intense conflict; 3) the climax or the culmination of the conflict; 4) the falling action, denouement, when the tension is eased; 5) the resolution where the story ends.

This is the model taught in schools and posits that there are three kinds of conflict, those Stern lists under tension: man against man, man against nature, man against himself.

It is not the only model for stories! But it is a good starting point to understand the importance of suspense-tension-conflict in a work of fiction or creative non-fiction.


   [v. kuhhttp://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/dictionary/graphics/luna/thinsp.pngn-flikt; n. kon-flikt]

verb (used without object)

1. to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash: The account of one eyewitness conflicted with that of the other. My class conflicts with my going to the concert.

2. to fight or contend; do battle.


3. a fight, battle, or struggle, especially a prolonged struggle; strife.

4. controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.

5. discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.

6. a striking together; collision.

7. incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.