“I thought the story was well written, but nothing was happening.”

I write these words more frequently than any others in rejections letters for stories submitted to Pig in a Poke magazine. Lack of tension and conflict is probably the most common and unfortunate reason for rejection because many of these stories have real potential. Lack of tension is also a common problem in the fiction writing I see as a freelance editor, so I thought it deserved a blog post.

The best stories are the ones that keep us interested and what builds interests is tension. Tension is that feeling of conflict between what the protagonist wants and the barriers in the way of that happening. I don’t care how literary a story is, or how well the words are strung together, if there is no conflict, it is boring. No conflict equals rejection. Long or short, fiction must have tension or you lose your reader.

I recently read a 5,000 word story about a man who fought in Operation Hurricane backing up paratroopers dropped into Samara. I hated to reject the story, because it could have been really good, but instead was a dialogue about Eastern politics. Why wasn’t it good? There was no conflict, no tension. We learned the protagonist’s story only through his passive reflection on what had happened to him. There was no reason to keep scrolling down the page. It was well-researched and well-written snoozer. Withholding could have turned this story into a page turner.

Avoid the rejection pile by learning to withhold

Creating tension in fiction is about withholding. It might mean withholding the answers to questions like: Will Detective Alex Cross get the bad guy? How will James Bond will get out of this? Will Harry and Sally find a way to be together? These questions must be carefully planted into the readers mind and the answers revealed only through the resolution in the ending. Hints dropped sporadically can be a good way to build tension.

You create tension by continuous planting of questions in your reader’s mind. In the case of the Algerian soldier, tension could easily have been created by telling the story in real time and withholding by posing these questions either in the characters’ actions or dialogue: Is the hero going to save the day? Will our soldier make it out of Algeria? Will Algeria achieve independence? As it was written, these questions were answered before the story even began. Why would anyone keep reading?

Create tension by withholding in several ways:

  • change the order of how you reveal what happens, so that the reader will want to know what’s going to happen next–taking care not to reveal too much up front.
  • “mystify” one of the major revelations so that it’s unclear to both the reader and the characters what is really going on.
  • give at least one significant character a juicy secret that ties into the central storyline and will give a nice subplot at the same time.

Your characters are flawed. They should make mistakes. If your protagonist takes two steps forward, she must take one step back. There is a reason James Patterson’s books sell. He is a master of creating tension. When Alex Cross gets one step closer to the killer, something worsens in his life. His grandmother collapses and is rushed to the hospital. His girlfriend is kidnapped.

Here’s to conflict. May it always reign in your stories.

5 Responses to “Withholding”

  1. dear trina,
    thanks for the visit to my blog. otherwise i would not have found yours. its a very, very good post. very helpful. thanks for sharing these gold nuggets.

    with warmest wishes,

  2. Trina,

    I completely agree with your assessment. At university I could have probably chalked up more than half of the bad fiction I critiqued from classmates to lack of intrinsic conflict (though most writers were too polite to actually come out and say so, another problem in literary circles these days I think…constructive criticism is gravely lacking).

    I think there’s a major misconception in new post-modern literary fiction that as long as it’s well-written and lyrical, there doesn’t have to be a central conflict in the story. That misconception is leading to a *lot* of stodgy, underdeveloped “vignette” fiction in my opinion.

    Thanks for the post, it’s nice to get a brush-up on basics every once in awhile.


  3. Kellye,
    Yes, I feel like a broken record in my rejection letters.

    There is also no substitute for having another pair of eyes on your work. A good writing group can be invaluable. Ours met last night and I took 3 pages of notes about the first 2 chapters of my novel in progress. Most of the suggestions are minor, but a few show a disconnect with what I had pictured and what they pictured. I am lucky to have talented writers in my group who are not afraid to give constructive criticism. Now, you’ve sparked an idea for my next blog post.


  4. Stories should be about characters and something happening to/for/about those characters. I fail at this as often as anyone. Each time I reread I try to find areas where nothing is happening, no one is moving, no plot is building, no mystery posited or revealed etc. Thank you again for taking the time to write your views. They help those of us in need.

  5. John,
    I think your method or rereading is an excellent one. Thanks for sharing.

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