I’m often asked, “How can I use dialogue to create tension in my story?” It’s a great question because the right balance of tension is crucial for engaging readers and propelling the narrative forward.
In this article, I’ll share nine practical ways to create tension in a story with dialogue, each accompanied by an example to help you understand the concept better. So, let’s dive in and explore the power of conversation!
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How to Create Tension in a Story With Dialogue
1. Use Interruptions
Interruptions are a great way to create tension in a dialogue. When a character is interrupted, it can lead to frustration, confusion, or even anger. This disruption of the natural flow of conversation creates tension between the characters and adds a sense of urgency to the story.
“I’ve always wanted to tell you—” John began.
“Save it!” Mary snapped, cutting him off. “We don’t have time for this now.”
2. Unanswered Questions
Deliberately leaving questions unanswered can create an air of mystery and tension. When one character avoids answering a question or gives a vague response, it can make the reader wonder what’s being concealed, leading them to feel invested in the story.
“Where were you last night?” Sarah asked./
Tom hesitated, then said, “I was just…out.”
Misunderstandings between characters can create tension, as they may react to situations based on incorrect information or assumptions. These misunderstandings can drive the plot forward, leading to conflicts or obstacles that the characters must overcome.
“I saw you with her,” Jenny accused.
“What? No, you must have seen someone else,” Mark protested, but Jenny had already stormed off, convinced of his betrayal.
Subtext refers to the underlying meaning or message that isn’t explicitly stated in the dialogue. Using subtext can create tension by making the reader aware of the hidden emotions or motives of the characters. This technique adds depth to the conversation and invites the reader to read between the lines.
“Do you think she’ll come back?” Alice asked.
“I don’t know,” Paul replied, his eyes avoiding hers. “But I hope she does.”
In this example, Paul’s evasive gaze hints at a deeper emotion—perhaps guilt or regret—without explicitly stating it.
When a character contradicts themselves or another character, it creates tension as the reader tries to understand the truth. Contradictions can reveal a character’s internal struggle or highlight the conflict between two characters.
“I never wanted this,” he whispered.
“Really?” she scoffed. “Because it seemed like you couldn’t wait to walk away.”
6. Power Dynamics
Manipulating the power dynamics between characters can create tension in a dialogue. Unequal power dynamics can make one character feel vulnerable, intimidated, or threatened, which can result in emotional or dramatic exchanges.
“Do you understand your position here?” the CEO asked, his voice dripping with condescension.
“Yes, sir,” the employee mumbled, shrinking into his chair.
7. Emotional Outbursts
Emotional outbursts can be an effective way to create tension in a dialogue. Characters revealing strong emotions, such as anger, fear, or despair, can make the reader feel empathy or anxiety, driving them to engage with the story.
“Why can’t you just let me be?” Emily shouted, tears streaming down her face.
8. Suspenseful Pauses
Incorporating suspenseful pauses in your dialogue can create tension by building anticipation. These pauses can make the reader eager to know what happens next or reveal a character’s hesitation, uncertainty, or fear.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” James said, his voice shaking. He paused, struggling to find the words. “I—I think I’m in love with you.”
9. Conflicting Goals
Characters with conflicting goals create tension naturally through their dialogue. When two characters want different things or have opposing viewpoints, their conversations reflect this conflict, making the reader feel engaged with the story and eager to see the resolution.
“We can’t just leave them behind!” Laura insisted.
“Listen,” Ryan replied, his voice firm. “We have to save ourselves. They knew the risks.”
Final Notes: How To Create Tension With Dialogue
Dialogue is a powerful tool for creating tension in a story. You can craft compelling conversations that engage your readers and propel your narrative forward by using interruptions, unanswered questions, misunderstandings, subtext, contradictions, power dynamics, emotional outbursts, suspenseful pauses, and conflicting goals.