How to Create Tension in your Writing

My tips for creating and maintaining tension in your writing.

  • How to write a description incorporating the senses.
  • Descriptive writing tips to build atmosphere.
  • How to vary the pace in your writing to create tension.

How to write a description incorporating the senses

Focus on the five senses – sound, smell, touch, taste, and sight.

Think about what your character can hear, smell, touch, see, and taste. This will enable the reader to feel the tension, the anticipation, or the warning of approaching danger more easily. There is also another sense that I like to add, called feel. What does your character feel inside? What’s going on in their body, or in their head? 

Example – character wakes up in a pitch black basement. 

Let’s imagine that our character has woken up to pitch black. There’s initial panic. What does the panic feel like? 

Feel – How is their heart beating? Is there a pounding in the back of their head? Is there pain in the body? Is there sweat dripping past their hairline?

Example: Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake

“I wake up to the smell of dust and the sensation that most of my head is lying in shards somewhere behind me. Then I blink. Each breath I take sends up a small puff of grey across aging and uneven floorboards. Rolling onto my back, I realise that my head is still intact, but my brain hurts so badly that I have to close my eyes again. I don’t know where I am. I don’t remember what I was doing before I got here. All I can think of is the fact that my brain feels like it’s sloshing around in there unattached.”

This is a great example of someone who wakes up in pain and who is disoriented. It shows what the character is feeling rather than simply telling the reader. 

Telling would go something like this: “I woke up in pain and felt disoriented.”

You can see how showing this sense of feeling is much more powerful than telling it. 

What is your character going to focus on next? They’re probably going to try and figure out where they are. And that’s where the next senses come in. 

Touch – Your character is still stuck in that pitch black basement. How does the floor feel? Is it cold? Is it damp? Does it feel slimy, like it might be coated in mould? 

Another option to describe touch is the air. Is there a cool breeze that ices over the skin? Or is it still. Does the air feel suffocating, like its closing in? 

Example: The Haunting of Ashburn House, by Darcy Coates

“The wooden boards were gone, clawed through, and her scabbed fingers dug into rich, tightly packed dirt. Her mouth was open, but there was no air left to drag into her starved lungs. The soil was crushing her, suffocating her, filling every crevice around her. It got under her eyelids and filled her mouth and made each twitch of her fingertips a battle.”

Smell – What can your character smell? Is there an earthy scent? Does it smell like disinfectant, or chemicals? 

Example: Fallen, by Lauren Kate

“The stale air smelled like something had died there, and Luce was almost glad the room was too dark to clearly see the floor.”

Example: The Haunting of Ashburn House, by Darcy Coates

“The air felt different inside Ashburn. It was heavier and drier and permeated with a musty odour that Adrienne struggled to identify.”

Taste: What can your character taste? Is there a metallic blood taste in their mouth? Can they taste sweat above their upper lip? If they’re scared and panicking, maybe they can taste vomit climbing up. Is it bitter? Acidic?

Example: City of Bones (from the Mortal Instruments), by Cassandra Clare

“A sudden stabbing pain made Clary clutch at her stomach. The pain was fading, but Clary was aware of an acid feeling in the back of her throat and a strange light-headedness.”

Example: Fallen, by Lauren Kate

“They were in a hallway Luce had never seen before. Todd slammed the door shut behind them. They gasped and filled their lungs with clean air. It tasted so good, Luce wanted to sink her teeth into it, to drink a gallon of it, bathe herself in it.”

Sound: What can your character hear? Birds chirping? Wind? Rain? Are there faint thunderclaps in the distance? Or maybe there are sounds that are unrecognisable. Hinting at sound is great for the horror, thriller, paranormal genres. It creates a sense of danger approaching. 

Example: The Scorch Trials, by James Dashner

“At first he didn’t know what he was hearing, or if maybe it was just his imagination. With the thumps of dry footsteps, the rustling of the packs, the whispers of conversation between heavy breaths, it was hard to tell. But what had started as almost a buzz inside his head soon became unmistakable. Somewhere ahead of them, maybe all the way in the town but more likely closer, a girl’s screams tore through the night.”

Or maybe you can talk about the lack of sound. Be creative with the way you describe sound. Use similes to give the tension more impact and make your scene more vivid. 

Example: Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake

“I don’t think there’s ever been a quieter night. No wind, no bugs, no nothing. The sound of the gravel under my shoes is painfully loud. It’s pointless to try to be stealthy. It’s like being the first one awake in the morning, when every move you make is as loud as a foghorn.”

Sight: What can your character see in the pitch black basement? Can they see only as far as their extended hand can reach? Maybe they can see something rippling and ebbing in the dark, something that moves like water. Maybe their eyes play tricks on them? 

Sight works to build atmosphere in a scene.

Example: Black Ice, by Becca Fitzpatrick

“I eyed the edge of the dark forest, where the towering wall of trees swayed in the wind. The woods seemed alive, haunted; they seemed to be stirring uneasily.”

Example: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Example: The Mist, by Stephen King

“The thunderheads were getting closer, pushing away the blue. There was no doubt now that a storm was coming. Thunder boomed, rolling slowly across the lake and then echoing back again. The clouds twisted and rolled, now black, now purple, now veined, now black again. They gradually overspread the lake, and I could see a delicate caul of rain extending down from them.”

You’ll notice from all the examples above that the authors have combined feeling, touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound to add detail and paint a picture in the reader’s mind. It’s all showing, no telling. It sets atmosphere. It hints that there will be conflict, or something dangerous and sinister approaching, and it creates tension. It develops suspense. It makes readers want to continue reading. 

Descriptive Writing Tips to Develop Tension and Add Atmosphere

We want to keep the tension building in our stories by gradually adding to the atmosphere. Think about details such as background noises, shadow and light, and difficult terrain, such as uneven or slippery ground during a chase. 

Example: Evernight, by Claudia Gray

“And I saw him. A man in the woods, half concealed by the fog, maybe fifty yards from me, wearing a long, dark coat. The second I laid eyes on him, he started running after me. Shock jolted through me, cold as ice water, and I found out just how fast I could really run. Branches tore at the sleeves of my jacket and snagged the strands of my hair that had fallen loose from my bun. I stumbled over a stone, and my teeth sank into my tongue, but I kept running. He was even nearer to me now, too near. I had to go faster. I couldn’t go any faster.”

What else can you use to build atmosphere and tension?

You can use the weather, darkness, shadows. Some ideas include:

  • Mist or fog
  • Storms, lightning and thunder
  • Heavy or relentless rain
  • Dusk, shadows, twilight. 
  • Darkness or pitch black
  • Cold or howling winds

You can give your reader a clue that something is about to happen:

  • What’s lurking outside? What is that noise in the attic growing louder?
  • An acute feeling of being watched or followed.
  • Fear of being discovered in a hiding place as footsteps/voices or something sinister approaches. 


  • Use punctuation to add suspense. This can include ending the sentence abruptly to hold back essential information, or use colons, commas and ellipses (repeated full stops) to delay the revelation or inevitable. 

Example: The Haunting of Ashburn House, by Darcy Coates

            “Branches stung as they cut into her face and arms. Her legs were jarred with nearly every step as she misjudged where to place her feet. But she couldn’t slow down; the clicking was drawing closer.
How? She was only walking before-
            Adrienne risked a look over her shoulder then yelped as her foot caught on a root and tumbled her forward.”

Refer to Time

Build a sense of tension by making frequent references to time.

Examples from Alison Wilcox on her descriptive writing website. Alison Wilcox is an American literacy editor. 

  • He searched desperately for a way to escape. Frantic now… time was running out.
  • The next few seconds unfolded in horrifying slow motion.
  • For fatal seconds, he stared, unable to think or move. And as he faltered, the jaws of the trap closed around him.

Vary the pace

To increase pace and tension in your writing, vary the length of words, sentences and paragraphs.

Examples from Alison Wilcox on her descriptive writing website.

  • Use short words, for example, ‘at once’, rather than, ‘immediately’.
  • Place several short sentences consecutively. She ducked. He lunged.
  • Include one or two-word sentences. For example: ‘Oh no!’ or ‘Coming closer. Too close.’
  • When the action is fast, use partial sentences: He had to get to the others. Had to reach the attic. He staggered, stumbled, scrambled. Five steps more.
  • Use short paragraphs – some may be a single line.
  • Include lots of verbs to convey action and create a fast pace; use several verbs in a single sentence.