Use tension to draw in readers

Notice the tension in this mini-scene:

The headlamps from Jim’s old pickup flashed the glassy sheen of ice on the dark two-lane. Janice clamped down on his forearm as another contraction gripped her body.

“Faster,” she said. “This baby’s coming."

It’s hard to deny the pull of the story of a mother in labor and her nervous husband driving icy roads at night. Will they make it to the emergency room in time? Will they have to deliver the baby themselves?

Show tension in a scene

One great way to get attention and engage the reader to your content is to open with a dramatic scene. But what if your material isn’t so dramatic? The truth is, there is drama if you know where to look. The key is to find the tension.

To illustrate, I’ll tell you a story about an assignment I completed for the employee magazine of Robert Half International, a worldwide recruitment and staffing agency. The editor wanted me to write about an event the company’s New York office sponsored in conjunction with Bloomberg.

You’ve seen these stories countless times. An office manager wants attention for a successful program or event. Usually, the stories follow the old who, what, when, where, how formula: This group put on this event on this date in this city. People came. They talked about this and that. Quote from employee on success. End of story.

That story may get read by a few people from the sponsoring office. But what about all the other employees who receive the magazine? How could I get them to read the story?

Obstacles create conflict

Imagine you have to throw a party at a swank New York hotel with one of the world’s largest financial media companies. You’d probably feel nervous as you anticipated the event. Would anyone come?

That was the tension the Robert Half staff felt.

With the addition of a few details on setting gleaned from my interview, I used that tension to create a scene. Here’s how it opened:

It was a balmy July evening in Manhattan, and inside the 55-story midtown skyscraper, Dawn Fay, district director, Professional Staffing Services, and the Robert Half team surveyed the gathering crowd with a mixture of excitement and anticipation. Invitations had gone out, RSVPs returned. But this was bustling New York. Would people really show?

In that first paragraph, we have the makings of an entire story. We have character, goal, setting, stakes and – the tension-creating device – obstacles in the form of competing for the attention of busy New Yorkers. Obstacles create conflict. And resolving the conflict satisfies our story craving.

Think of tension as dissonance

Tension is the unresolved space between what is and what may be. In music, it is the dissonance created by a note or notes that beg to go somewhere else. When we hear that tension, we pay attention. And when the tension resolves to the tonic chord, we feel relief and a sense of calm, even satisfaction.

Find the tension in your story, and you’ll find a great way to pull in your readers.