Saturday, October 18, 2014

Prompt #205– Creating Tension in a Poem

This week, in keeping with our October Halloween “theme,” let’s take a look at tension in poetry. Most of the time, we look to eliminate tension from our lives, but there are times in poetry when we want to create it!

Arguably synonymous with “suspense,” tension in poetry is a way of building and keeping interest throughout the poem. Simply creating tension in a poem doesn’t mean writing about a mysterious or haunting subject. More importantly, tension in a poem is the direct result of skillful and intentional craft. 

Tension is defined as the act or process of stretching something tight, the condition of being stretched, a tautness. How do we create that in our poems? A poem’s “tension” is a combination of poetic elements that work together within the poem. For example, repetition used well can add an element of tension as in Poe’s “The Raven” with its famous repeated line “quoth the raven nevermore.”

Here are a few other tension-creating pointers:

Writing in the first person and in the present tense enhances tention in a poem by placing the reader close to the suspense, or mystery.

Line breaks that create disjunction can generate and control tension by causing readers to pause or stop, even if only briefly, to reflect upon meaning.  Pauses can also add to a sense of foreboding, of something about to occur.

Short sentences that contain active (dynamic) verbs enhance tension in a poem.

Deliberate fragments can help create a sense of confusion and mystery—incomplete statements can serve the same effect.

Unusual imagery, restrained as well as intentional language, connotative and denotative language, rhythm and sound, subject matter, alliteration, and assonance all add to the tension in a poem.

Changes, twists, and surprising juxtapositions of images also add tension—the unexpected can unsettle readers.

Anticipation and expectation enter the mix—don’t give away your ending before you get to it.


1. This week, write a narrative poem in which you create tension through the story you tell, the scene or experience you describe, or the emotion you suggest. Think “Halloween,” “scary,” and “mysterious.” Work with the following:
  • A compelling opening line
  • Subject and symbols
  • Language
  • Unusual imagery
  • Form and meter
  • Effective line breaks
  • Mood
  • Sound (alliteration, assonance, internal or external rhyme)
  • Repetition (anaphora)
  • A nod to the supernatural
  • A dismount that does more than bring the poem to obvious closure


1. If you need a jumpstart, select something from the following (you don’t need to include the line or phrase in your poem but may if you wish). Give your poem its head, and see where the starter leads you!
  • a shutter slaps the side of my house
  • a shadow in the corner behind the staircase
  • footsteps in the hallway on the other side of the door
  • mist hung between trees, between shadows
  • deep night and a sound inside the silence
  • when nothing is what it seems
  • a full moon risen on the cusp of my fear
  • nothing but darkness and the rustling of small animals
  • his/her face framed by a dark hood
  • only the sound of a clock ticking
  • a white deer standing between tombstones
  • silence and then the scream
  • something floating beneath the water’s surface

2. Write in the first person and in the present tense to create a sense of immediacy.

3. Don’t lose sight of the this week’s goal: creating tension in a poem. Keep the stakes high—show, don’t tell.

4. When creating tension (suspense), be sure to create “breathers;” that is, tensions needs to ebb and flow throughout your poem. The number of breathers you incorporate will depend upon the length of your poem and your subject’s needs. In a shorter poem, you may only need a single breather.



  1. This is wonderful and so season-appropriate! Thanks, Adele!

  2. I am so loving these Halloween-inspired prompts.

    Oops, that's the passive voice, isn't it?

    Okay, here's the revision -- I love these Halloween-inspired prompts!

    See, I pay attention, and I'm grateful!

    1. So glad you're enjoying the Halloween prompts, Sandy! There's one more coming, so stay tuned. (Love your revision!)

  3. These are great seasonal prompts. Another headed for the classroom. Thanks, Adele.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rich, and stay tuned because there's one more Halloween prompt coming,

  4. Thank you for another wonderful prompt.

    I never read "The Raven" in its entirety before finding the link on this blog post. The poem is both terrifying and exciting.

    Anita (Mumbai, India)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Amita! I'm so glad you read "The Raven." It's definitely a classic and you're right about it being terrifying and exciting.


    And I am the chief surveyor
    of these cool valleys
    where moss covers
    the eyebrows of
    the elm trees

    where mountains rise
    afar, blue, and cool,
    like the metal
    tripods of my

    who can’t see the river boulders
    as paths of Indians
    on horseback

    to kill pale faces, who traded
    buck shots and rifles,
    for their deer skins.

    Who left deep cuts,
    unhealed, in the
    land, those who

    chased the feathered heads
    away but failed to tame
    their ghosts,

    who still fly over this patch
    of earth we call the
    Fallen Tomahawk.

    Basil Rouskas
    October 2014

    1. Well done, Basil (ghosts are always a great vehicle for creating tension)! Thanks so much for sharing with us!

    2. Wonderful, Basil! Thanks for sharing this.

    3. Basil, may I have your permission to copy this poem and use it as an example in my classroom? Thanks in advance!

    4. Rich
      It will be my pleasure to have the poem copied and used in your classroom.


  6. deep dark night
    enveloped time
    dreams rode on heat waves
    broken every hour by the digital keeper
    a soft breeze pushed the curtains
    I sneezed

    1. Wonderful, Risa! I love the way you create the tension and then release it with a sneeze—an unexpected ending! Thanks so much for sharing!

    2. Bless you, Adele. I have so much pleasure working on these challenges every week! This took a few days to cook. I often get surprised at what comes out.

    3. Thank you, Risa! I'm so glad you enjoy the prompts and their results!

    4. Well done, Risa! I always enjoy your work! Thank you!

    5. Risa, I've asked Basil's permission to use his poem as an example in my classroom and I'd like to use yours as well. Okay with you? Thanks!

    6. Yes, Rich. That would be great! Thanks. I hope the student enjoy it.