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Does Your Story Need More Tension?

by Allison Maruska (originally posted on

Have you read a story where the character knew everything that was going on and merely went through a checklist to solve the problem?

I certainly hope not, because that would be boring as hell.

No matter the genre, we read stories to see how the main character emerges victoriously (or not). Does the detective solve the crime? Does the waitress capture the heart of the famous patron? Will the elf/goblin find the mystical gem and save the kingdom from certain annihilation?

If the character knows in the beginning how to conquer the challenges, there would be no story. In a typical narrative, the characters don’t know what to do, and neither do we, the readers. Tension arises through conflict and complications and the unknown. Include those, and you’re more likely to write a page-turner.

But if you want to turn your tension up even more, throw in some dramatic irony.

*Insert collective groan as everyone remembers their high school literature classes*

Stay with me. Do this right, and your book will keep people up at night. Yay for creating drowsy drivers!

Dramatic irony happens when the audience knows something the characters don’t. Instead of exploring the dark cave with the MC and discovering the monster with him, we know the monster is there and brace ourselves for when the MC finds it. Dramatic irony causes readers/viewers to say this: Don’t do it!!

Or if we’re writing a romance, maybe this: Go for it! He likes you!!

Yes, everyone studied dramatic irony in high school. No one remembers, because high school literature classes have a magical gift of taking something interesting and turning it into a snore fest. Take, for example, the most famous example of dramatic irony: Romeo and Juliet.

We were all forced to translate Shakespearean and read this classic. It’s easy to tell who did their homework. Those who think it’s a basis for all love stories did not–unless they think all love stories should end in a suicide pact.

But it wasn’t really that, was it? Juliet took the “look I’m dead” potion, but Romeo thought she was really dead. We knew more than Romeo, and we watched in horror as he offed himself in despair.

A still famous but more recent example occurred in the movie Jurassic Park. Remember the scene where Ellie is turning on all the electric fences at the same time Sam and the kids were climbing one of them? The camera jumped back and forth from Ellie working down the grid, turning on all the switches, to Timmy hanging onto the fence, refusing to drop. Ellie obviously didn’t know her simple act of turning on the power would kill Timmy. But we did, and we sat at the edge of our seats to see if Timmy would let go in time.

So how do you add dramatic irony to your story?

The key is point of view (POV). I didn’t read the Jurassic Park novel, but the movie is third person objective (as all movies are). We’re watching the characters do the thing from the outside, and the camera jumps from character to character.

It’s basically the same in writing, though. I believe it works best with alternating, limited third POV (click here for more info on POV). It can work in omniscient, but it won’t be as powerful because we’re not all up in the characters’ heads. Typically, in limited third, the reader knows only what the character knows. But if we the readers know something the character doesn’t while we’re seeing the story from his eyes, that creates tension.

It doesn’t have to be edge-of-your-seat tension. I’m reading a story in my critique group that features a primary MC, and the story is told in limited third from her POV for much of the first quarter of the story. Then, the camera moves to her potential love interest. We watch him see her for the first time. We know who she is and her entire background, but he doesn’t. It’s a lot of fun to read his reaction to a character we already know.

I’m about to ask how you’ve used dramatic irony in your writing, but allow me to answer the question first. I used quite a bit of it in The Fourth Descendant. The first occurrence was when the characters sat together on the flight to Richmond, but none of them knew who the other ones were. Readers watched each character’s reaction to the other characters, and it wasn’t until they found their ride to the hotel that they realized their connection. Of course, the readers knew the connection from the beginning of the chapter. It was one of my favorite chapters to write.

Your turn: How have you used dramatic irony in your writing?

Guest post contributed by Allison Maruska. Allison likes to post in line with her humor blog roots, but she also includes posts about teaching and writing specifically. Check out her website for more of her work.

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