Building Tension in Creative Writing for the 11+

Eleven-Plus Preparation Specialists

Creating tension in your writing will draw the reader in, and show that you have the ability to craft an engaging story. Here we’ll look at some of the best ways to build tension.

Create a Sense of Urgency

Through having some form of countdown, you can generate suspense. This doesn’t need to be a literal countdown, rather just a situation or scenario in which your character must act quickly, lest things go wrong. Through this countdown we will better feel the stress that the character is facing. Some examples that could work well would be your character having to escape a chamber before it floods, having to get home before night falls, or a ship having to make it to harbour before the storm comes in. You can use this technique on much smaller or less dangerous situations too – perhaps the character needs to cross the road and speak to someone in the brief period of time whilst the bully has gone to get sweets, for example.

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Don’t tell the reader everything

Often, what we don’t know creates tension, rather than what we do know. That could involve slowly revealing bits of information, thus lengthening the discovery process and creating suspense – or it could mean purposefully leaving some information out and up to the reader’s imagination. This is a technique that is often used when characters are in a dark space, for example, where they might not be able to make out quite what is going on. Alternatively, in the middle of a grey and rainy day they might struggle to distinguish an approaching figure – could it be their friend or a highwayman coming to steal from them? We can also see this in a broader context. Imagine that you have introduced two characters from the outset, your narrator and their ‘friend’ – except it is never revealed whether their friend truly has their best interests at heart. In other words, note that you can keep specific details hidden from your reader, or broader concepts and motivations too. 

Create Conflict

Tension will primarily arise from conflict. If your hero has many difficulties in their way, then they will face more tension as they look to surmount those difficulties. If they have no difficulties – e.g. their day consists only of picking strawberries peacefully – then there is little tension that can arise. However, if their day consists of picking strawberries with their evil aunt Matilda who is hell-bent on making their day difficult any way that she can, then you will find it much easier to create tension – both between the two characters themselves and in the story in general. You should try to increase the conflict as the story progresses before you resolve it towards the end.

Drop Hints

Similarly to the second point in this guide – not telling the reader everything – you will find that providing some small hints for the reader will serve to build tension. As an example, imagine that the hero has reached a cave, and finds a drop of blood on the floor by the entrance. Alternatively, they might be walking a clifftop path and find a piece of fabric that matches that worn by a missing girl. These hints allow the reader to imagine what will happen next.

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A cliffhanger is when we stop the action midway through a particularly dramatic part of the action – so called because we imagine someone hanging from a cliff, not knowing whether they will fall. You can use cliffhangers in your writing, either at the end of the second part of your story – thus increasing your reader’s anticipation for the final section – or even at the end of the story if you want to make a statement.

Use Twists

A twist is when the narrative seems to be going one way, and then suddenly changes direction. An example might be the hero finding out that their evil teacher is actually kind, but had to pretend to be evil to protect them from a dark force. You can also use sudden, shocking twists: An example could be that the hero knows that an evil being has a tattoo on their neck of a spider. The hero, whilst helping their friend take off their shirt after being injured in a battle, sees a spider tattoo on the back of their neck. They would suddenly feel terror – as would we, the reader.
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