Quick Skills: How to Build Scene Tension

I just finished book 2 of the Hunger Games series, Catching Fire.

Excuse me while I go pick up book 3 and spend the day ignoring my to-do list. This series is a lesson in how to create fabulous tension. Not only is the story premise powerful, but every chapter has that “can’t put down” quality.

Why? TENSION on every page (as the Master Donald Maas would say!)

But what is tension. Recently, I read approximately 1,768,639 contest entries. Okay, not quite that many, but it felt like it. And very few really wove real tension into their story. Obstacles and Activity are not Tension. Tension is a combination of a Sympathetic Character + Stakes + Goals + Obstacles + Fear of Failure. If any of these are missing, we don’t have tension.

Obstacles can be People, Situations, (weather, or machines, or even government), or even a person’s own emotions/values. But they are simply TOOLS to stand in the way of what the character WANTS. And that Want must be backed up with a powerful WHY.

But how do you build that tension into a scene? Here’s a step by step process that I use that helps me craft a scene. 

Step 1: Determine your Action Objectives: What kind of scene is it?

  • Action: Goal, Conflict, Disaster
  • Reaction: Response, Dilemma, Decision

Ask: What does POV want? What does he/she want at this moment? Emotionally, physically? Answering this question will help you build the conflict.

Add in:

  • Why? (do they want this?) 
  • What is the Push/Pull? Every scene has to have an emotional or physical push/pull (or combination thereof).  It’s the PUSH away from something negative, and the PULL toward something positive.
  • What’s at Stake: What will happen if they DON’T meet their goal? What fear hovers over the scene?
  • What is your character’s Goal? (this may be different from the Want, but be driven by the Want and the Why.)

Step 2: What are the Obstacles? What will stand in the way of your character achieving this goal? Obstacles can be People, Situations, (weather, or machines, or even government), or even a person’s own emotions/values. 

Step 3: Create A Fear of Failure: Will your character reach his/her goal?

  • If not, then hint that they will in the scene, make them believe they’ll have victory, only to disappoint them at the end.
  • If yes, then hint that they will fail, only to surprise them at the end.

Step 4: Start On the RUN! Start with the character already in the scene. Can you move your character 5 minutes later into the scene?

Step 5: Create Sympathy: Is your character doing something sympathetic? Something that makes us care about them? Are her emotions realistic?

Step 6: Where do you start? (Build the 5 Ws/Facts) Start with the basics – the 5 W’s. Who, What, Where, Why, When. As the reader we need to know who is in the scene, where it is, when it is, what is going on around them, and a little about why they’re there.


  • Who – Who are the players in the scene? (And how do they feel about being there?)
  • Where – What details stands out to the character? Why is this significant to the character?
  • When is it – what is the time of year, and how do we know that (we’re again looking for details here).
  • What – What other activities are going on in the scene? What is your pov character doing?
  • Why – why is she/he in this place?

Now add: 5 senses: To really draw your storyworld you need to use the 5 senses to engage our emotions. Sight, Smell, Sound, Touch Taste

Now you’re ready to start your scene.

Quick Skills: Do you have all the components of a Tension-filled scene? Check the equation!

Sympathetic Character + Stakes + Goals + Obstacles + Fear of Failure.

Have a great writing week!

Susie May

P.S. As you might already know, MBT is now offering an advanced membership with access to our full library, advanced teaching through webinars and video talk shows and a monthly advanced class. For more info, check out: www.mybooktherapy.com/join-the-team/. Hope to see you at practice!





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Susan May Warren

About Susan May Warren

Former Russian Missionary Susan May Warren is the best-selling author of more than 40 novels and novellas with Tyndale, Barbour and Steeple Hill, and Summerside. A Christy award and RITA winner, and multiple finalist for the RITA, Christy and winner of Inspirational Readers Choice contest, Susan currently has over a million books in print. A seasoned women’s events speaker and writing teacher, she is the founder of http://www.mybooktherapy.com an online community for writers, and runs a fiction editing service teaching writers how to tell a great story. Visit her online at: http://www.susanmaywarren.com.

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2 Responses to Quick Skills: How to Build Scene Tension

  1. Tari Faris May 15, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    Oh and I just finished Book one of the Hunger Games – Dieing to get my hands on #2.

  2. Tari Faris May 15, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    This is such a great check list to start a scene or to use on an edit. One of my big AhhHa moments at Deep thinkers came at realizing disaster didn’t have to mean a physical disaster like the cat died. But rather it is a disaster because it is leading the character to ultimate disaster.

    Great post, Susie. I think I will print it off and post it on the wall next to my writing “nest”.

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