Building tension – should you Show or Tell?


Its the lifeblood of any book.  Regardless of what genre you’re in, you need to craft a story that holds the readers attention.  There’s only one thing that keeps someone going through a book, and that’s wanting to know what happens next.

There’s a bunch of ways to create tension in your book, but I want to concentrate on two specific techniques today: Tell First or Show Later.

Did you just make those up yourself right now?



Fine.  What is Tell First or Show Later?

I’m glad you asked, hypothetical straw person.

Tell First / Show Later is the difference between letting your reader know what’s coming vs having them experience the event in real time.  Both techniques can be effective and you can use them both to great effect in your stories.

Let’s start with Tell First.

Okay.  What’s Tell First?

Tell first is when you let the reader know exactly what’s coming.  You tell them exactly how nuts things are about to get before they actually happen.

The hunger games is a great example of this technique.  Before Jennifer Katniss even steps foot in the games, we’ve already read a bunch of information about it.  We know most people who enter don’t make it out alive.  We know how important it is for a district.  We know it’s a life-changing event.

Armed with that knowledge, by the time she sets foot in the games, the reader is already tense with anticipation because we know exactly how bad things are going to get.  The tension doesn’t come from figuring out a mystery, the tension comes because we’ve already been told how nuts the whole thing is.

Hunger Games.jpg
We know she’s good with a bow.  What we don’t know is how many people she’s going to impale

What are some other variations?

You can also tell the reader your plan ahead of time.  Actually walk them through the steps of what is coming next.  Think of the first Star Wars.  There’s an entire scene where they tell the viewer exactly how they’re going to attack the Death Star.  They lay out plan for the attack run and tell the viewer exactly how they’re going to do it.

The tension comes when there’s a deviation from the plan.  The reader knows when things aren’t working and wants to know how the hero is going to solve it.

Like Luke falling asleep right in the middle of the scene.  Who could have seen that coming?


Okay, what’s Show Later?

Show later is where you build tension by letting the reader experience the event in real time with no hints of how it’s going to unfold.  In this instance, the reader knows something is coming but wants to find out exactly how it’s going to work.

You see this all the time in Heist movies.  The tension comes from watching them actually execute the heist and uncovering all the tricks that make it possible.  It’s a variation of “how the hell are they going to pull that off?”

Oceans 11.jpeg
Are they going to continue to be staggeringly attractive?  Who knows?


That’s it?

No, of course not.  There are hundreds of other ways to build tension in your book.  But you can think about these two when you’re constructing a scene and decide how you want to use them to greatest effect

Happy writing!

Leave a Reply