Week 7: Building Tension


  • Tension makes stories move. Tension makes poems matter. Without tension, our writing is stagnant, pointless, forgettable. Tension keeps a reader reading until the end. Imply it early (in the first line if possible), and make sure every line moves towards it until the climax.
  • How we build tension: Change in the subject or the speaker or the main character, punctuation, short sentences, pauses/drawing out, foreshadowing, unexpected reveals, dialogue, rhythm, line breaks.
  • NOTE: Next week we enter revision, so this week ask your kids to star their favorite 2-3 pieces that they’re interested in revising. Steer them toward their strongest work!


Today’s goal

  • Build tension by making something happen in your piece.

Target exercise activities

  • Kiwi!: Watch animated short “Kiwi!” together. Ask your kids to raise their hand/stand up/make a motion every time they feel the tension increase, then discuss the different techniques together afterwards.
  • Mafia: Play a short version of the game Mafia to experience tension and suspense!
  • Story Shapes: Check out the blog for a visual exercise inspired by Kurt Vonnegut called “story shapes.” Graph stories onto the board together, then challenge your writers to plot out their own stories to see where there’s opportunity for more tension.

Writing fellow Lindsey Grovenstein walks us through a target exercise about tension inspired by Kurt Vonnegut. This exercise is a great visual tool to help your authors see how tension is working in their own piece. Challenge your kids to make their own story shapes and write a story that follows the shape they’ve created.

See Vonnegut’s original talk here, or take a look at this excellent infographic describing story shapes.

Reading ideas

Writing prompt ideas

  • A: Write about a time you rescued someone—or someone rescued you. / Write about a time you witnessed a wrong but didn’t/couldn’t act. Rewrite the script; anything is possible.
  • B: Write about a time you lost someone or got left behind. / Write about a time when your emotions felt too big to be held inside your body. What did you do? How did you cope?
  • C: Write about a time a relationship/friendship was challenged. / Write about a time you came up with a master plan.
  • D: Write about a time you lost control. / First line: “I just couldn’t help it.”

This is an excellent opportunity to add tension to work-in-progress. Otherwise, your kids are welcome to create something new.

Pick one of these lines to jump-start a new story:
(Credit to writing fellows Jo Dasher and Sarah Wagner, 2014)

  1. “Why did I ever agree to do this?” I wonder.
  2. We left without saying goodbye.
  3. It’s the same old place, but everything feels different this time.
  4. “Of course you will,” she said, without even asking me first.
  5. His grip on the steering wheel tightens as we get closer.
  6. Hundreds of eyes locked on her, waiting for her to speak.
  7. He slams the door and leaves.
  8. Every seat is already taken.
  9. I wish I could tell the truth about…

Sharing/performance ideas

  • B.E.A.P. FEEDback: Writers pair up and each chooses which type of FEEDback they want to receive:
  • Bless: Tell me what was good about my piece
  • Express: Tell me what my piece made you think of
  • Address: Address a particular issue I have with my piece (e.g. Does this dialogue sound believable? What do you understand about this character? Etc.)
  • Press: Give me all the critical feedback you’ve got
  • Writers each share their piece and listen to feedback, but are not allowed to comment or explain. They must focus on listening and considering their partner’s contribution.