Q&A: Increasing the Emotion in Your Stories

You may have noticed the message at the bottom of my previous article, inviting you to submit any story questions you’d like me to answer. These can include specific problems you’re encountering in finding or developing your own stories – actually my favorite kind of question, because these prove to be more useful to you personally, and tend to be far more helpful than those where I’m responding to a hypothetical issue you think you might encounter somewhere down the road.

I really appreciate those of you who have already responded to my request. Here, in fact, is a question that applies whether you’re a writer, speaker or entrepreneur. I hope it will encourage you to send in your own by clicking the ORANGE “ASK MICHAEL A QUESTION” button on the right sidebar. 

QUESTION: How do I create tension in my story without resorting to action?

ANSWER: Creating tension in your story is an outstanding way to increase – and extend – the emotional involvement of your readers and audiences. But tension is actually the antithesis of action. 

ACTION involves the things any character does to achieve their goal and overcome the obstacles standing in the way of accomplishing what they desire. The moments when your hero faces the greatest amount of conflict are usually the most emotional scenes in your story.

But TENSION is all about creating anticipation. When we anticipate the obstacles that we think your hero will have to face, and the rewards or consequences your hero will experience as a result, the tension is the unresolved tug-of-war between what we want and what we dread. We’re emotionally engrossed in your story because we don’t yet know if the character will succeed or fail.

In a well written thriller or horror film, the audience anticipates violence, and the tension takes the form of suspense. In a love story or romantic comedy, the anticipation of the hero and love interest finally kissing or making love creates sexual tension. 

In either case, the resolution of the conflict will release the tension, as the character faces the killer or monster or the couple finally connects. And both the buildup and the payoff will heighten the emotional experience. 

If you’re using storytelling to grow your business or move your prospects to action, add to the tension and emotion by revealing the obstacles you or your client had to face. But don’t give away what the outcome was until later in the story. 

So if it’s a story about how you had to overcome the possibility of bankruptcy, don’t begin by saying, “Let me tell you how I was able to save my company.” 

Instead, open with, “The biggest crisis I ever faced was when I discovered my company was about to go bankrupt.” 

Now as you relate what you did in the face of this challenge, we stay deeply involved in your story because you haven’t told us if you succeeded or failed. That tension sustains the conflict and emotion far longer than if you had given away the ending.