Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 20, 2012


While I was at the NJSCBWI Free Craft Day I sat in on Sara Sargent’s Workshop on Tension and asked Katia Raina if she would be willing to write up a brief article about what Sara shared with us and she said, “Yes.” Here is a picture of Sara and Katia’s article:

Picture this: the hour is late. The alarm will ring too soon. You need your sleep. Desperately. And yet there is something you need more. You need to find out what happens next. You need to keep reading the book in your hands. 

As a writer, we all dream of authoring just this sort of a book. And one surefire way to create this experience for our future readers is through tension. 

Assistant Editor at Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins) Sara Sargent defines tension as a “feeling that everything is at stake.”

Make it a matter of life and death, either literally or figuratively, Sara says, and you’ll be writing a book readers won’t be able to put down.

On November 10th, Sara talked tension at a workshop for New Jersey SCBWI during a free craft weekend organized by our new Regional Advisor Leeza Hernandez. In her workshop, Sara urged the writers to think big with their stories. If your story does not deal with actual, physical survival, that’s okay too. You just need to think big in other ways. Think earth-shattering love, think secrets, revealing which will lead to huge consequences, think independence or freedom, always an important theme with teens.

“Make it feel like every day is big,” Sara said. “Make everything matter.”

Here are a few other highlights from Sara’s talk. 

There are several kinds of tension you can have in your manuscript, and you should seriously consider having more than one of these:

1.  Romantic tension:  As the readers keep turning the pages, have them wonder: will those two get together? Will the end up apart?

2.  Environmental tension: happens when the setting itself creates barriers to the protagonists achieving their goals.

3.  World-building tension: closely related to environmental tension, the conflict here emerges out of the rules and regulations of your story’s world.

4.  Thematic tension: “The best books you’ve read explore big ideas,” was the way Sara put it. What is your book about – beyond the obvious story – in the deepest sense?

As you plan, plot and write, think of your work as target shooting. The bull’s eye, according to Sara? Your readers’ emotions. As you write or plan, think about what’s at stake. “If there is nothing at stake for your characters,” Sara said, “then what’s the point of them existing? My big question to the writers is, ‘Why should I care?’”

Your book, snapping with tension, stakes as high as the sky, should be the answer to that question.

Katia Raina is the author of “Castle of Concrete,” a young adult novel about a timid half-Russian, half-Jewish teen in search of a braver “self” reuniting with her dissident mother in the last year of the collapsing Soviet Union, to be published by Namelos.

On her blog, The Magic Mirror, Katia talks about writing and history, and occasionally features interviews and all kinds of lists.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Great stuff in here. Thanks for sharing.


    • Rosi,

      Thanks for the compliment. Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and weekend. Don’t spend too much on Black Friday.



    • Thanks, Rosi. Glad to be of help! Mostly, our thanks go to Sara, right? I love how she urges us to THINK BIG. Good luck with your story and Happy Thanksgiving!


  2. Such an important topic and component of a book. As a writer, I know this. Oddly, as reader, I didn’t consider why I love the books I do until just now!


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