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crime and suspense
novel writing techniques

How to Create Tension in a Story: The Moral Dilemma

January 9, 2022
Jack Jordan
January 9, 2022

As you set about writing – or editing – a gripping novel, you might come up against the question of how to add tension to your story. Maybe you’ve got a great idea that packs in plenty of action and intriguing themes, but you feel the stakes aren’t high enough.

How can you make sure readers really care about your plot and your characters? How can you create the tension necessary to keep the pages turning, and keep us on tenterhooks?

If anyone has the answers, it’s Jack Jordan. The global number one bestselling author of psychological and suspense-filled thrillers Anything for Her, My Girl, A Woman Scorned, Before Her Eyes, Night by Night and Do No Harm, Jack is a master when it comes to creating tension in a story.

Here, he shares his top tips and the importance of an almost unanswerable moral dilemma to create tension and internal conflict in a story.

Why readers relate to the tension of a moral dilemma

Moral dilemmas are a great tool for building tension in creative writing because we all face them – on a bigger or smaller scale – all the time.

As human beings, morals are at the heart of who we are. On a personal level, morality is the compass that helps us navigate life. On a broader scale, morals are the laws of the land, the intricate maze of unspoken rules we all live by.

Our personal morals are so intertwined with our society that we may not even recognise the number of choices we have to make every day – nor the opportunities we have to stray.

Every minute, we choose to do the right thing. We choose to wake up to go to work. We choose to pay our taxes. We choose to sit in traffic rather than mount the pavement in a wild free ride to get to where we need to go.

We face an ongoing internal conflict between our most basic instincts and the social contract we have in our society. Two opposing forces, often pulling us in opposite directions in both the big moments that shape our lives, and the smaller moments we live every day.

But we choose to do the right thing, not just because of the beliefs that have been instilled in us, but because we know the consequences that await if we do wrong.

These morals – and the choices that accompany them – live within all of us, whether we recognise these as right and wrong or good and evil.

Good and evil are so close as to be chained together in the soul.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

It is these fibres of humanity we all live by; for fear of being a bad person, but also for fear of paying the price of making the wrong decision. They are so deeply ingrained in us that being forced to go against one’s morals can tear a person apart.

And as writers, we get to have a lot of fun with that.

This is ‘the moral dilemma’ and it’s a brilliant way to build tension in a story.

Why moral dilemmas create tension in stories

A moral dilemma is a situation in which a person must make a difficult choice between two courses of action, either of which forces them to betray a moral principle.

It is the reason why Romeo and Juliet has stood the test of time; why Sophie’s Choice has become so prominent in popular culture. Moral dilemmas are experiences that both intrigue and terrify us. They are an interesting and exciting type of internal tension.

In fiction, the moral dilemma is an invaluable tool.

When it comes to plot and structure, a dilemma drives the story forward with tension and foreboding. On a deeper level, it shows the protagonist’s humanity (or lack thereof), allowing the reader to relate and bond with them emotionally as they face this internal struggle.

This is what the moral dilemma ultimately does: put the reader into the protagonist’s shoes and prompt them to ask themselves: what would I do in this situation?

Examples of moral dilemmas driving a story

In Adrian McKinty’s The Chain, a mother is targeted by dangerous masterminds and must abduct another person’s child or risk losing hers forever, joining a chain of parents just like her – kidnapping another child to save their own. The emotional tension is palpable just from that brief blurb.

In Sophie’s Choice, perhaps one of the most infamous moral dilemmas, our protagonist, Sophie, reveals a long-held secret to the narrator: when taken to a Nazi concentration camp with her two young children, she was forced to make a split-second decision and choose which one of her children would live, and which would die.

On the surface, these decisions seem impossible to make. Yet, they are equally impossible to ignore because the consequences of doing so are too great – the repercussions of inaction anchor the moral dilemma. The key to a stellar dilemma is not just the choice your protagonist must make but the ramifications of them making the wrong decision.

The repercussions of inaction anchor the moral dilemma.

How a moral dilemma inspired my novel

As a writer, I am consistently cruel to my characters because I know that by dropping my protagonist into the pot and whacking up the heat, the readers will connect with them on a much deeper emotional level.

In my most recent thriller, Do No Harm, the moral dilemma was the first thing that came to me. I was undergoing a minor procedure for which I needed to be put under general anaesthetic. Just before the needle was inserted, I was hit by a sudden fear: I didn’t know anyone in the room. I was trusting strangers with my life, my body, my dignity.

As a writer, I am consistently cruel to my characters because I know that by dropping my protagonist into the pot and whacking up the heat, the readers will connect with them.

Luckily, the team was nothing but kind and professional. When I woke up in my recovery room (and the anaesthetic had worn off), I immediately began to wonder what it might have been like if the medical team had had an ulterior motive. What would make a medical professional do such a thing? What might the stakes be? And if you’re looking for answers on how to create tension in a story, stakes are your key ingredient.

This is how Do No Harm and the moral dilemma at the heart of the novel were born:

A notorious crime ring abducts the child of leading heart surgeon Dr Anna Jones and gives her an ultimatum: kill a patient on the operating table or never see her son again.

In this moral dilemma, Dr Jones must make a choice: betray her oath to do no harm, or lose her son forever. You can see there’s plenty of tension in this story right from the premise, and it only builds as the story progresses.

How to create tension in a story using a moral dilemma

Of course, there’s no hard and fast rule for how create suspense and tension in fiction. But if you want to try using a moral dilemma to build tension in your story, ask yourself the following questions (for yourself or for your protagonist):

  1. What matters most in the world to you? And how far would you go to protect it?
  2. What is something you could never bring yourself to do? And what desperate situation would you have to face to go through with it?

Once you have come up with your dilemma, dig deeper into the consequences of each decision the protagonist could make (and as a bonus point, consider placing a time limit on their choice. Few things increase tension like a ticking clock!).

You could create an outcome that is morally corrupt but recoverable. The Chain is a good example: the abducted children survive if their parents follow through with the same demands.

Or you could take the darker route to ramping up tension in your story: delve into the character’s soul, like Sophie’s Choice. In choosing one of her children to live over the other, Sophie must live with the consequences of her actions.

To conjure up the consequences of your moral dilemma, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who is your protagonist? What matters most to them?
  2. How can you put that in jeopardy? What ultimatum can you give them to up the stakes?
  3. What are the consequences of the decision the protagonist must make? What will happen if they do, or don’t, go through with it?

How to create tension in stories according to psychology

Whether it’s child abduction, heart surgery or life-and-death decisions, it is these dramatic levels we can go to as writers, thrusting our characters to the edge of their morality.

This is a great way to create tension in a story, because it doesn’t just give characters a good adrenaline rush, it also allows our readers to test their own moral compass and reconfirm who they are. Keep the reader wondering what they would do. According to Psychology Today, we are wired to enjoy it.

Evolution has sharpened humans’ survival instincts to the point where it feels natural and sometimes enjoyable to, well, survive. Even from a young age, we enjoy exercising our survival instincts and homing in on fear in a safe environment.
— Psychology Today

Whether it’s playing hide and seek, binging true-crime documentaries, or being unable to look away from a pile-up, we as humans are fascinated by our own survival, and dabbling in the darker side of our nature.

The moral dilemma is the ultimate gift to explore who we are, especially when we can forge an emotional connection to the internal tension plaguing our protagonist.

Examples of moral dilemmas creating tension in fiction

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
Sophie reveals she was forced to choose between which of her children should live, and which should die.      

Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
Sephy, a Cross, and Callum, a Nought, who should be bitter enemies due to their statuses in society, embark on a forbidden love affair that risks the very foundation of their lives.

The Chain by Adrian McKinty
A mother is targeted by dangerous masterminds and must abduct another person's child or risk losing hers forever, joining a chain of parents just like her: kidnapping another child to save their own.  

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
When Jane discovers Rochester is already married to the woman in the attic, she must choose between love and honour: either she can break her own heart and happiness, or surrender her reputation in an unforgiving time period.          

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna has beauty, wealth, popularity and an adored son. But when officer Count Vronsky appears, she is forced to either remain in her marriage and stay at the top of society or succumb to her desires and sacrifice her status and everything she holds dear.

Hostage by Clare Mackintosh
A flight attendant must choose between saving her child or the passengers onboard a non-stop flight from the UK to Australia. ‘You can save hundreds of lives… or the one that matters most…’  

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
Bella must choose between Edward the vampire, or Jacob the werewolf – either she can die and live with Edward for eternity, leaving her friends and family behind, or fall in love with the werewolf next door, and keep her soul.

Do No Harm by Jack Jordan
A notorious crime ring abducts the child of leading heart surgeon Dr Anna Jones and gives her an ultimatum: kill a patient on the operating table or never see her son again.

The more imminent you make the choice and the higher the stakes that decision carries, the sharper the dramatic tension and the greater your readers’ emotional engagement.
— Writer’s Digest

Give your protagonist an impossible choice, and force them to take a path; if you’ve got yourself a high-stakes moral dilemma, tension and mayhem ensue, regardless of the direction your character decides to take. You’ll keep your reader telling themselves just one more page, even in the quiet periods of your story.

Someone writing in a notebook
Jack Jordan

Jack Jordan is the global number one bestselling author of six thrillers including Do No HarmAnything for Her and Night by Night – an Amazon No.1 bestseller in the UK, Canada, and Australia. His latest and much-anticipated novel Do No Harm was sold as a six-figure deal in a three-way auction to Simon & Schuster, and met with enthusiastic advance reviews from celebrated writers in the genre.

Members of The Novelry team