Ramping Up The Tension, One Block At A Time

My kids were playing Jenga this afternoon. You remember that game, right?


This pic came from amazon.

It’s the one where you remove a block from a tower of blocks and add it to the top of the tower. So the tower always has the same number of blocks. Since you’re taking the blocks from the lower parts of the tower and adding them to the top, over time, the tower becomes unstable.

It wobbles.

It leans.

The next player taps the edge of a block. It doesn’t give. Taps a different one.

It gives. A little.

The tower sways, and everyone holds their breath.

Don’t touch the table! 

By now, the game has gone on for several minutes. The tower is precariously balanced on one or two blocks at the base. The midpoint is an obvious weakness.

The player pulls on the block that gives a little. The towers twists.



Pulls on the block.


Game over.

This is the part where we use the game as a delicious metaphor for novel construction.

Let’s say the beginning tower is the beginning of your novel. Everything’s all set up with a main character, a setting, and some kind of insight into what life was like before the inciting incident. Just like the game, the beginning tower shouldn’t last long (readers might not even get to see it).

The first block is the inciting incident. It’s just enough to disrupt the character’s life. Something has changed, but it hasn’t toppled the character’s whole world. Not yet.

Remove some more blocks. This is what Nabokov described as “chasing the main character up a tree and throwing rocks at him.” Little by little, the tension mounts. The tower of the main character’s life starts to wobble and sway. He has to adjust to survive. Meanwhile, the readers are holding their breath, waiting for the whole thing to collapse.

In the game, the blocks being added come from the base. What does this mean for our metaphor?

I could throw a pillow at the tower to knock it down, but what fun would that be?

Complications should come from within the story itself. Tension is rooted in the characters – even in plot-based stories. The antagonist has to go after the protagonist for some reason. The protagonist usually has done things to make matters worse. The characters – and the readers – don’t have to know how it’s all connected at first, but they should by the end. Nothing just happens in a novel.

Eventually, so many things happen that the tower falls in a dramatic crash.

Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean the story is a tragedy – unless you want it to be.

Assuming it’s not a tragedy, the crashing could be a number of places in the story. It could be the middle plot point, the “all hope is lost” moment in the climax, or if you’re in a series, at the end of book one or two. In any case, the protagonist has to take charge and do something to solve the problem. He has to work to rebuild the tower, encountering new complications along the way.

This is where our comparison ends, because for the protagonist, it isn’t game over. It’s game on.

3 thoughts on “Ramping Up The Tension, One Block At A Time

  1. Pingback: Story, You Need A Problem | Allison Maruska

  2. A great reminder to remember the purpose of each detail within a story! Especially for writers who tend to begin writing without outlines (I’m definitely guilty), it’s important to recognize how each scene/character is adding to the conflict.


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