Storytelling In Business: Tension Makes Your Story Interesting

Kelsey Ruger9 ResponsesCreativity

If you understand how to apply story structure, the next step is to build the action and sequence of events in your story. Adding conflict of tension is the best way to build action and keep things interesting. Tension is the force that moves us to change. Tension is uncomfortable and makes you want to do something to reduce the tension.  Here are some thoughts on using tension to build your stories.

You can fuel interest in your story by adding tension

What’s the point of a story without a challenge? Challenges create tension and tension makes people want to stay tuned into your story. Without some type of challenge you story won’t be that interesting because there is no motive, intention or desire upon which to build the story. Traditional conflict in stories comes from six sources:

  • Manly vs. Man (an relational conflict with another person)
  • Man vs. Himself (an internal conflict with yourself)
  • Man vs. Society (a social conflict against a group of people)
  • Man vs. Nature (a external conflict between what is natural and what is material)
  • Man vs. Machine (A conflict with the paranormal or technology)
  • Man vs. Fate (an internal or external conflict with the supernatural)

This story can go in a lot of directions. Particularly since we still don’t know whether the boy or girl is the main character. The point is we added resistance.

Questions to ask:

  • What is the character trying to achieve?
  • What are they seeking an answer to?
  • What can you do to add tension?
  • Why is the tension there?
  • What needs to be done to remove the tension?
  • What will stand in the way of removing the obstacle(s).

Add more tension by adding opposition

Most stories have a protagonist (your main character or “hero”). To really raise the tension add an antagonist (the opponent). The main purpose of the antagonist is to stand in the way of the protagonist while they pursue their intentions. The cool thing about the antagonist is that it can be a person, place or thing. It can be internal or external to the main character – as long as it creates a conflict.

Adding opposition cartoon

Questions to ask:

  • Who is the “challenger”?
  • Is the opposition internal, external or both?
  • Why is this opposition important to the development of the character?
  • What steps will the hero take to overcome the opposition?
  • Is the opposition a rival or is the hero an underdog?

Tension grows as opposition increases

Simply introducing an antagonist isn’t enough if you want to create an interesting story. Overcoming the challenges presented by the antagonist shouldn’t be easy. They should either change the character of the protagonist or reveal some factors that guide the direction of the story.  It  is also a great way to add twists to give the story variety. The best story will move beyond the beginning tensions like “the girl said no” and explore the story beyond the resistance that got ot going.

Questions to ask:

  • Can you use an embarrassing situation to rise the tension?
  • How do you demonstrate that the character is changing?

Make change the point of your story

Make sure that the events of the story cause a material change in the circumstances or your main character. Meaningful stories change things or people in meaningful ways. Ask yourself not only what the sequence of events are, but also how those events will change your character.

Questions to ask:

  • Did the main character experience some type of change?
  • Did the protagonist change?
  • Did the main character find out that nothing really needed to change?

Comments & Opinions

JillianMonday, March 8th 2010

Great post! Love the illustrations :)

Jason LeeTuesday, March 9th 2010

Thanks, for sharing these posts. Can you clarify a little how I would go about using this if I were speaking or giving a presentation? Is there a template that can be used to make putting this together easier?

Kelsey RugerTuesday, March 9th 2010

These items are really intended to build the pieces of the story. For example if I were giving a presentation on work ethic I would either choose an overall storyline where the main character succeeds or fails, depending on how I wanted to communicate the message. The components of the presentation would be made up of "mini stories" or dramatic situations that are intended to add tension and move the presentation forward. Throw in personal anecdotes and you have a full story to present to the audience.

Limor ShiponiSunday, March 21st 2010

Really liked the comics. Thanks for the fresh approach!

silentkTuesday, March 23rd 2010

What do you you do if you don't HAVE a story to tell? If there is no tension, adventure, conflict, or excitement in the work your organization is doing?

Kelsey RugerWednesday, March 24th 2010

@silentk My first answer is ouch. To address it more directly I would say that there probably is a story there somewhere. Maybe the story is in the original reason the organization was started or maybe it's in the struggles that the organization had to overcome to get to the point it is at now. A good practice for starting to uncover the story is asking the following questions: Who are we? What do we do? Why does it matter? You'd be surprised how many stories those three questions set-up… assuming you can answer them.

@monxiesWednesday, January 19th 2011

Thanks, great post Kelsey!
Stumbled upon the Moleskine blog via @getstoried,
and I'm glad I did :) I'll be back to read more!

Deborah HuiskenThursday, February 3rd 2011

Kelsey – Fun site! Have you read Norton Juster's The Dot & The Line? I think you'd appreciate it…

I DESIGN STUDIOThursday, November 10th 2011

Hi there! We are just in process of reinventing the identity of our design studio as our scope shifted from web design to overall design for branding, web and architecture. We have a problem how to present all this on our front page and we think the solution is by story telling. This post is helping us a lot.Thanks! When we are done we will come back to share the result on the new website.
Milena Böhm

Selected Twitter Comments

No Twitter conversations active.

Twitter Hashtag: #MSK1171

Post Your Comments