How to Build Page-Turning Tension in Your Scenes

This past April and May, I read over 100 short stories as a judge in The Write Practice's Spring Story Contest. I kept track of how often I gave feedback on different writing and storytelling concepts. This post is the third in a series on common scene-writing mistakes I observed. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Build tension with Progressive Complications 

Once you've started a scene with an Inciting Incident, your next job is to increase the tension with Progressive Complications. The Inciting Incident upsets the balance of your protagonist's life. A Progressive Complication is an event, or a series of events that continue to push the character’s world further out of balance. 

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Each Progressive Complication increases the tension a protagonist faces and pushes the character closer to making a tough decision. Setting up a series of Progressive Complications that bring readers to the edge of their seats without getting melodramatic is tricky. Here are three common problems in crafting Progressive Complications within a scene.

Problem #1. Complications are situations, not specific moments.

Just like the Inciting Incident, each Progressive Complications needs to be a specific event we can pinpoint on a timeline. Seeing a character have their world getting pushed further and further away from “normal” strengthens the emotional bond between the reader and the protagonist.

To see how this works, let’s go back to the story setup we used last time. The premise of our example story is that a single mom and veteran bus driver named Sheila gets a lucrative new job working for a bus company with a shady safety record. It's also an Action story, which means it's about safety and danger. Let’s imagine a scene for Sheila’s first day on the job.

The Inciting Incident of the scene is that Sheila attends an orientation meeting for new staff where she gets her work gear. At the beginning of the meeting, Sheila and the other new drivers are fitted with headgear to hold heavy, knockoff GoPro cameras to their head. After each person has their gear strapped to their head, they’re told to take a seat. Here are two versions of what may happen next.

EXAMPLE 1.

Sheila takes her seat and tries to ignore her itching head. She has to focus on why she's doing this, making more money to help her son, Charles.

EXAMPLE 2.

Sheila’s phone buzzes. Charles texts, “I didn’t get the scholarship.” Sheila slouches in her chair. If she wants to help her baby go to college, she's got to get used to wearing this thing on her head.

In EXAMPLE 1, we learn that Sheila has an important reason to stay in this job. She wants to make money to help her son. That's a situation. Sheila’s not any worse off after she sits down in her chair then before she got the orientation training today. Whether the son needs money for college, or for some other reason, this situation is stable. Nothing in this example changes the financial pressure on Sheila.

In EXAMPLE 2, we watch a specific event that pushes Sheila’s world further out of balance. We learn that Charles doesn’t get a scholarship. If Charles had won, he might not need as much financial support from his mom. But because he doesn’t win the scholarship, the financial pressure on Sheila increases. That’s a specific event and a strong Progressive Complication.

Problem #2. Complications don’t relate to what’s at stake in the scene.

Each Progressive Complication should heighten the tension in the existing conflict. While it's possible to push conflict in an unexpected direction, the new direction should have a direct impact on what's already been established as important.  When we add conflict that is unrelated to what's already been established, readers get confused. They don’t know where to place their focus and this weakens or breaks their emotional bond with the protagonist.

Let’s use the same setup as described in Problem #1. Right now, Sheila has just received her uncomfortable headgear.  The orientation meeting hasn't started yet. Here are two new versions of what may happen next.

EXAMPLE 1.

Sheila takes her seat and sits in silence. I wonder if I’ll be able to get a date this weekend with my new schedule

Her phone buzzes in her hand. Carla again. "You disgust me. Mom should disown you for what you said about Uncle Harold." Sheila sighs.

EXAMPLE 2.

Sheila takes a seat next to a tall man with the broad shoulders. He smiles with sweet brown eyes as Sheila sits down. "I like your headgear." He says with a laugh. Sheila smiles back and touches her hand to the strap.

The trainer, who could easily be mistaken for a drill sergeant blows an ear-piercing whistle. "YOU! What do you think you're doing?!" 

Sheila stutters. "I-I'm taking a seat."

The trainer glares at Sheila. "You DO NOT touch your headgear!" 

"Yes, sir." Her phone buzzes in her purse, but she can't move.

"Think you've got better things to do?!!!

"No, sir." Sheila sits down and fumbles to find her phone in her purse. Her hands shake as she tries to silence the phone. 

EXAMPLE 1 offers new information, we didn’t know Sheila had concerns about getting a date or an argument with her family. However, this new information doesn’t relate to what’s at stake in the scene. Concerns about getting a date and having an argument with family members is not directly connected to wearing uncomfortable headgear or to the motivations of the company requiring it. New elements need to have a direct connection to what's happening right now in a scene. When there isn't a direct connection, readers get confused.

In EXAMPLE 2, every new element is related back to the existing conflict in the scene. The cute guy incorporates a comment about the headgear into a flirtatious hello. The trainer singles Sheila out for discipline when she touches the headgear.  When the phone buzzes, he shames her. This series of Progressive Complications adds new elements, but each one is directly related to what's important in the scene - the dynamic between employer and employee.  Can you see how EXAMPLE 2 pushes Sheila closer to make a tough decision about whether she's willing to take this kind of abuse and EXAMPLE 1 is all over the place? 

Problem #3. Complications peak too early.

Most of the time, you want your Progressive Complications to stretch out the tension throughout your scene. You don't want to take the tension to a peak in the first hundred words and then have nowhere else to go.

EXAMPLE 1.

After work one day, Sheila pulls her car into the alley parking spot behind her brother's house. A second car pulls up behind her. She's cornered. A man carrying a pistol gets out of the car. He tells Sheila she' should quit her job or else. Sheila and the man continue arguing over the course of 4 pages. 

EXAMPLE 2.

Sheila is driving home and she keeps seeing a black Buick in her rearview mirror. She wonders if she's being followed. She drives very slowly to the grocery store and the Buick is still there.  Not sure what to do she drives to her brother’s house. When she pulls into her brother’s driveway a man with a gun gets out of the car just as Sheila’s brother comes out of the house with a baseball bat.

In EXAMPLE 1, things start off with a bang. Sheila's cornered by a man with a gun! But then, the only thing the man does is give a verbal threat. Yawn. When Progressive Complications peak too early, you risk boring readers.

In EXAMPLE 2, the tension is stretched out. First, there's the possibility of being followed. Then, when it's clear that Sheila is being followed, she reacts. She tries to lose the tail. When that doesn't work, she goes to her brother's for help. But does Sheila want the kind of help that comes with a baseball bat? This series of events is working together to push Sheila towards a tough choice - Should she intervene between the man with the gun and her brother?

Use Progressive Complications to bring your readers to the edge of their seats 

To build tension in your scenes, craft specific moments that keep pushing your character's world further out of balance. Don't blow the tension all at once, stretch it out as long as possible. Most of all, keep in mind what's important in your story. For example, are you writing an Action or Thriller story where what's most important is establishing where the protagonist is on the spectrum of safety vs. danger? Or a Love story or Worldview story where it's more important to establish inner emotions and relationships between characters? Whatever kind of story you're writing, make sure your Progressive Complications directly impact the value at stake.

Get help crafting the perfect Progressive Complications in your scenes