Literary Elements That Can Help You Build Tension That Builds to a Big Payoff

The most important thing that any work of fiction can have is tension. It is what drives plots and creates drama that engages and thrills readers. Without tension, your story won’t connect with them – it’s what gives them a reason to keep reading. You also need conflict, which is usually when two entities which are often characters but don’t have to be, have opposing aims.

Tension and conflict are closely related, but there are stark differences between the two. Tension is a build-up to conflict. If you have two characters get in a fight near the end of your story, there has to be a reason for it. That’s what tension is. Of course, conflict doesn’t have to be physical. It can be internal, emotional, or strategic. Conflict is the payoff for the tension that’s been built up in the story. If you’ve done it right, your reader will gradually be tied in knots with tension during the story until everything unravels during the final conflict. You can use literary elements to help you build the tension that your readers need. Here are some of the most important ones.

Flash Forward

A flash forward is when you present information from a time in the future for the “present” in which the story is currently taking place. If you are writing a short story, you can even start with a flash forward and then move back to the “beginning” of the story afterwards. This helps build tension if your flash forward is a suspenseful passage.

For example, you could start your story with a flash forward of your main character in some sort of difficult situation. They could be surrounded by bad guys, and standing in front of two women who he has to choose between. Then, when you go back to the beginning of the story, the reader will know where the story is going. The tension builds because the reader will want to know how the protagonist got themselves into that situation, and also how they will get out of it once the story catches up to the fast forward.

Chekhov’s Gun

When writing a story, you never want to have too much content that isn’t helping you build your narrative. Yes, you can have some description and exposition, but having characters take certain actions, for example, that do not have anything to do with their place in the story or their characterization just wastes words. This is especially true if you are writing a short story, since you need to make every word and passage count.

Chekhov’s Gun is a literary principle that asserts that there should be nothing in your story that isn’t necessary for the plot. For example, if you have a gun show up in the first act of your story, then it has to go off in the 3rd. Of course, it doesn’t literally have to be a gun. It could be that your main character spilled some water early in the story. Later on at a pivotal moment, someone else slips on it. If the spilled water is never addressed again, then it’s a wasted opportunity and should be cut out of the story completely.

Skillful use of Chekhov’s Gun will build tension because the reader will be waiting for that “gun” to show up again. They understand that the writer wouldn’t introduce something for no reason, so they will spend their time reading wondering when that gun will be important. The satisfying payoff comes when the gun goes off or the bad guy slips and falls.


Foreshadowing is similar to Chekhov’s Gun, but there are differences. With foreshadowing, it’s more about the writer planting clues about what’s to come. With Chekhov’s Gun, the object is obvious and out in the open. The right foreshadowing may not even be noticeable to some readers.

An example might be if a character at the beginning of the story mentions that they almost slipped on a wet floor in the past and nearly killed themselves. Or, a character could be walking down the street, and someone seeing them might scowl. This foreshadows that the two have some sort of conflict brewing. Much like with Chekhov’s Gun, foreshadowing will pull the reader in and have them wonder and guess how the hints will end up manifesting by the end of the story.

Dramatic Hook

You want your reader to feel the tension right from the first page. You need to get right to it to draw your readers in. One way to do this is by presenting them with a dramatic or mysterious situation right off the bat. For example, you could have a person sigh, walk to the edge of the roof of a building, and step off. With no explanation and no context, the reader will be invested in hoping to find out what drew that person to do such a thing, and what happens to them after they step off. Do they fall to their death? Maybe there’s something below that breaks the fall or catches them. If you combine that dramatic moment with a truly surprising resolution to the situation, then you will have done your job as a writer.

When writing a story, you need tension and you need conflict to act as a payoff to it. Without them, your story will not be engaging and will not make the reader care. Use these tips to ignite and build tension so that the final payoff is satisfying.