CraftDescription/ SettingEditingSavvyBlogTension/Pacing

Make Them Sweat: How to Build Tension into Your Manuscript Through Language by Dina von Lowenkraft

Applying the nuances that create Language Tension may be easier after your first draft, once the story has played itself out. The plot, the character arc, the theme of your writing – everything in your story is expressed through language. My previous articles on Ground Level Tension (how to create tension in setting) and Action Tension (how to create tension through plot, scene and character action) both covered aspects of writing that can be worked on at any point in your writing process (links below). The language you use supports and enhances the flow of action and emotion. It sheds light on the story world, the character, and the themes being explored.

What is Language Tension?

Language Tension is comprised of Word Choice and Syntax. But how, you may be wondering, does that create tension? Word choice can define emotional impact, it can call attention to a detail, or give weight to a thought. Syntax affects the flow of ideas. Done well, it brings the action and the character to life by aligning the reader with the tone of the scene.

Word Choice

Word Choice is in everything you describe, be it a physical setting or an action. Walking out of a room is not the same as striding out of a room. A scuffed sneaker doesn’t create the same feeling as a patent leather shoe. I have often heard people say ‘ground your scene with a detail’ but sometimes when I am reading a manuscript I see random details that don’t enhance the story – and this pulls me out. Details are important, but to draw the reader in effectively, they need to enrich the reader’s understanding of the world and the characters in your story.

So what are important details? It may be easier to know after the first draft, once the characters are fully-fleshed out and the story in place. At that point, you know what your characters would notice, what disturbs or soothes them. You also have a much clearer idea how their past (and perhaps even their future) is reflected in the objects they own, touch or desire.

There are many ways you can think about the words you choose. Here are a few to start with:

Word Choice in Description

Whether you are writing close first/third person POV or using an omniscient narrator, the words you choose to describe the setting create the world that your characters inhabit.

For example, a dense forest evokes a very different atmosphere from dappled sunlight coming through the trees, and our expectations for what will happen differ. In the dense forest we are probably uneasy for the character, whereas in the dappled sunlight we are likely to feel all will go well.

In the same way, a tower that soars above a character isn’t the same as a tower that looms above the character. In one, because of the word ‘soar’, we feel pride, something majestic, something reaching to the heavens. The visual motion (and emotion) is up. But with the word ‘loom’, we feel the tower as being oppressive, perhaps even about to come down on our character. Here, the visual motion (and subsequent emotion) is down.

In addition, what a character sees depends on who they are and what they have experienced. Where one person might see a mongrel, another will see a cross between a Border Collie and a Golden Retriever. Another will see a potential friend, while another will decide to run away. Whenever possible, make sure that what your characters notice, describe, and react to, reflects something about who they are. This will help ground your characters in their world, and make the reader see them as distinct, believable, individuals.

Word Choice in Action

Action involves what the character does, or observes happening. The words you choose impact how that action is experienced by the reader. A character walking out of a room doesn’t create the same urgency as a character striding out of a room. On the other hand, if the character walks out of a room where there has just been a scene of rebellion or dispute, the calm action of walking (not stumbling, not striding) may portray great strength.

Language To Show More about Doing

Often, active verbs will have more impact than passive ones. If you need to modify a verb (walking slowly) you may be better served by a different verb (strolling or sneaking or inching forward). I often find myself repeating the same verbs when I write my first draft. My characters ‘go’ places or ‘look’ at another character with alarming frequency. So when I revise, I think about each verb/action and try to find a more specific one that says more about the character or the moment. For example, instead of ‘looking’, one character might glance, another stare, and yet another will square their shoulders instead.

Language To Show More about Observing

When a character observes a falling glass, the impression is different if it smashes to the ground or if it tumbles to the ground. The way the action is depicted affects how the reader will perceive the action. A glass smashing to the ground feels violent – and I, as a reader, would expect it to break into many pieces. When it tumbles to the ground, the image it is less violent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t break. Both phrases show a glass falling – but they each evoke a different feeling in the reader.

Action can also be reflected in smaller movements that are part of the scene: a rustling leaf, a drifting cloud, a hissing kettle, a ticking clock. In each case, the description (rustling, drifting, hissing, ticking) can provide insight into what the character feels, or what the situation is moving towards. Used at the right time, these descriptive words help create a mood and set a tone.

Word Choice in Dialog

The words your characters use also have an impact on your story. A character whose words are tentative will give a very different impression from one who announces things forcefully, even if the information is the same. For example, ‘There were about a dozen cars’ vs ‘There were 12 cars’ vs a list of each brand and model that was there. Each sentence gives the same information, but we understand the character who has given the information differently in each case.

The same is true of how your character interacts with people. Do they look for confirmation, or make affirmations? For example, ‘Let’s go?’ isn’t the same as ‘We’re leaving.’ In addition, a character may speak differently depending on the nature or position of the other character(s) in a scene. The words they use will show their changing relationships, with themselves (gaining confidence, developing doubt etc.) and with others (being subjugated, begrudgingly accepting a partnership, falling in love, etc.).

Digging Deeper:

Word Choice is closely related to Character Voice (see article here) and Showing Your World (see article here), although the way you will show your world will depend on how close your narrative is to the character.


Syntax is ‘the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language’. But not all well-formed sentences have the same impact. If you write a beautifully crafted, eloquent sentence describing a bar brawl, chances are readers won’t feel the tension of the moment the same way as if the same action were to be described in choppy, quick sentences. The same is true of a sensual scene. Short, choppy descriptions probably won’t be satisfying and stimulating for the reader, whereas longer sentences invite the reader to slow down, and even (hopefully!) re-read the scene.

A few things to think about as you revise your rough draft:

Sentence length

When you read your text out loud, you will quickly notice the rhythm your sentences have and the feeling they create. As a general rule of thumb, you will have shorter sentences in an action scene and longer ones in sensual scene. Regardless of the content, if all your sentences have the same length and structure, the scene will feel flat. But if sentences have variety and their shape aligns with the character’s experience, or the movement of the plot, the flow will compel the reader ever deeper into your story. The best way to understand this is to take some of your favourite books and re-read the passages that you found the most powerful, analysing the sentences and noticing how the author created the feeling of tension or anticipation or beauty that hooked you in.

Repetitive words/phrases/sounds/sentence structures

We all have favourite words and it is only in re-reading and revising our work (and sometimes only with the help of beta readers) that we can identify them. Most of the time, as in the example about my characters who always ‘look’ at each other, there are ways of either making the word more specific or using another image in its place.

There are, however, times when a repeated word or phrase might carry meaning – and in this case the repetition is a conscious choice. For example, ‘I came. I saw. I conquered.’ has a very different impact from, ‘I came and saw. Then conquered.’

Repeated sounds may also sometimes be a valid conscious choice, as in ‘sliding along a smooth, sleek, wall’ where the s’s enhance the feeling of slipperiness. This isn’t something you will want in every paragraph, but it is a device that can be used to increase the vividness of specific passages and thus increase tension.

Being Sensitive to the Impact of Language

As you revise, look at how you say things. Read your manuscript, or at the very least your key passages, to see how your sentences flow. Check sentence lengths, word choices, even how often and when you use dialog vs prose and who/what is the subject of each sentence (do all your sentences start with ‘I’ or ‘Character X’?). And then, once you’ve looked at each word, each sentence, each paragraph, look at how they all work together to create your world and your story: your finished, polished, manuscript.

I hope you have found these articles on tension interesting – and I wish you all the best on your creative journey!

Other articles in the series:


[box type=”bio”]Dina von Lowenkraft Born in the US, Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. Somewhere between New York and Paris she picked up an MBA and a black belt – and still thinks the two are connected. Dina is currently the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her husband, two children, three horses and a cat.

Dina loves to create intricate worlds filled with conflict and passion. She builds her own myths while exploring issues of belonging, racism and the search for truth… after all, how can you find true love if you don’t know who you are and what you believe in? Dina’s key to developing characters is to figure out what they would be willing to die for. And then pushing them to that limit.

For more information about Dina visit her website, Facebook Page, Facebook – Twilight Times, Twitter, Goodreads and Pinterest.[/box]


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