Use of tension in writing
Writers use tension to make their work more readable, and more meaningful, and more interesting. Writers hook a reader into a piece by paying attention to energy and images. To keep the reader engaged, delighted, and connected to your writing, manipulate the level of tension.
There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers. — H. L. MENCKEN
Tension is defined as trouble on the page. Tension is conflict; it’s a technique a writer uses to keep readers a bit off balance, making them guess, forcing them to wait, allowing them to worry, or to wonder, or to hope.
There is a lot of beautiful writing that simply does not hold the reader’s interest. Tension allows you to make sure everything you write has enough pull to keep your reader with you for the whole ride.
Read “Where There’s Smoke” by Jenifer Hixson (p. 162). This is a dramatic story. What techniques does Hixson use to increase the tension for the reader?
THE PRINCIPLES OF TENSION
Desire + Danger = Tension
To make sure your writing has enough tension to keep a reader engaged, focus on your character/speaker’s main desire: Keep every sentence, line, or stanza in the piece closely focused on what this person wants, and what forces are keeping her from getting it. Usually, the writer presents the desire both externally and internally. The character or speaker wants a ride to the concert, drugs for her sick child, or quieter kids. She must keep a secret that can’t be kept. Externally, we see her trying to get the thing she wants by her actions. Internally, her thoughts reveal the significance and the conflicts her desire holds. She hopes to meet her ex-boyfriend at the concert, she hopes her child will grow up to be a doctor, or she wants the children to spend more time with their father.
If there is no danger, if nothing bad will happen if she doesn’t get what she wants, you have no tension. If the kid just has a mild case of the sniffles, the reader is going to wonder why you are making him read about this kid. If meeting the ex-boyfriend doesn’t hold the promise of a life-altering interaction—she wants to go back to him and desert her husband (her desire + her danger)—why drag the reader along through a tedious explanation of who Ellen is, who Joey is, why set the scene in the restaurant, why bother at all?
When you combine desire (the thing a character or speaker wants—connection, money, to score points, to not be stupid) and danger (the potential harm that will come to the person—rejection, a scam, loss, shame), you automatically create tension.
Desire without danger is boring. Beautiful, perhaps. But boring.
Danger without an individual character’s strong, focused, clear desire is perhaps exciting, but only for a short time.
Consider these situations.
1. It’s the first day of the last semester of your college career. You are wait-listed for three classes: Math, Physics, and Biology. The registrar’s office: inconveniently closed the entire break. You need all three of these classes in order to graduate. On your schedule, you have one class only, Tennis, and you do not need this elective, not at all. You can’t afford a fifth year. When you arrive at the math and science building, there is a line of a hundred students, jamming the front doors, spilling out onto the lawn. Every single student has an add slip. Every student needs Math.
Desire to Graduate + Horrendous Drop/Add = Drama
A boy wakes up, wonders what he will do that day, eats a nice breakfast, strolls down the sidewalk to school. Gets there safely. Recess goes well.
No Desire (mild wish to get to school) + Safe Arrival = Boring
2. You are dating two people. Both of them live in the same building, Joey on the floor above you, Carlo just underneath you. They don’t know about each other. Both Joey and Carlo have declared themselves loyal to you, and you have promised each, in the heat of the moment, that he is The One. Every time you walk into that building, you feel it: tension. Tonight both Carlo and Joey meet you at the mailboxes. It’s clear they have been talking. Joey has a knife in his hand. Carlo is holding a letter, thwapping it against his flat palm.
Desire for Joey + Desire for Carlo + Assurances That Are Lies (“You are the only one”) + Human Propensity toward Jealousy, Violence = Drama Tension.
A man looks around his room, remembering all the pleasant moments of his life. The luxurious cars, the silk suits, the comfortable gardens. He realizes he has lived well. He has worked hard, and it has been worth it. He turns on the classical station, sits on a large leather sofa, stares out the window at a beautiful view. His nice wife brings him a gin and tonic. It tastes great.
Happy Man + All Desires Fulfilled = Boring
1. You work twenty-nine hours a week. You despise this job, which a small child could do. You are behind in all your classes. You have nineteen cents in checking, and your Visa is maxed out and two payments behind—the account was frozen this morning. You are driving home—speeding—to spend Friday evening with your mother, who has a bad heart; your girlfriend is pissed you’re missing her sorority social; you told her you bought her a corsage, and she can pick it up at the florists right about now, but your card was declined, of course—there is no corsage at Julie’s Flowers for her. You race home to your mother worrying about your midterm grades; you need a much higher GPA to compete for a good job upon graduation. The cops pull you over. Seventy-five in a thirty.
Desire to Be a Good Son and Boyfriend + No Money, Bad Grades, and Lack of Attention to Posted Speed Limits = Drama
It’s hard to create tension without focusing your reader’s attention on both a strong unmet desire and risk factors—the problems—that will affect you adversely.
Your obstacles—the risk factors—needn’t be murders, car chases, or battlefields. Often it is the subtle, tiny annoyances that actually create the most tension. The low-level constant needs children present, climaxing when they get tired, hungry, bored. The kind of day where you lose your keys, get a flat, are served with a speeding ticket, and your boss says, “No, you can’t have that extension on the Miller file.” It’s not life-or-death drama that truly feeds the pulse of tension.
Art disturbs, science reassures. — GEORGES BRAQUE
It’s the little stuff.
In this chapter, you’ll learn to practice paying attention to what increases tension. And you will learn a few tricks for avoiding the things that kill tension (explanation, clichés, generalizing, distance).
Setting the Thermostat: The Four Elements of Tension
Read the following example, and rate the tension level on a scale of 1 to 5:
I wake up when my alarm goes off and I get out of bed. It’s 7:47 a.m. I can’t believe I have to go to work. I get dressed, and drive—the traffic is terrible. I get out of my car and stand on the gravel. I see my aunt waiting for me. She is wearing tan clamdiggers and her black shirt complements her dark olive skin and her black hair. Her Teva-saddled feet are next to a white ball. Sneaky sees me, his stomach hanging down to his hind legs. When he reaches me I pick him up. Marilyn says hey I’m glad you made it. I’m just glad I am not too late.
Sanity is madness put to good uses.
— GEORGE SANTAYANA
The piece seems fine, in many ways. It’s showing action, describing people, including setting, staying in one point of view. The characters are doing things. But somehow, the piece falls flat. Not a lot is happening. The narrator is late, but what are the consequences? Will anything result from these events? Is there any danger, really? A true problem?
A person wakes up, goes to work, finds her aunt, and collects a dog into her arms.
Readers say: So what? Why are you telling me this?
You don’t ever want your reader saying “So what?” You always want your reader saying, “How is this going to turn out? What happens next?”
How do you move from “So what?” to “What’s next?” Set the thermostat. One person wants something strongly and is not able to get it. Right away, and all through the piece. Then, immediately, you change the level of tension, increasing or decreasing it. You change the thermostat. And never let your reader go.
Read the story “What I Saw from Where I Stood” by Marisa Silver (p. 251). Make a list of the three most tense scenes or sections in the story. Then write a short comparison/ contrast of the tension in the opening of this short story and the opening in Akhil Sharma’s “Surrounded by Sleep” (p. 171). Which is the more tension-filled opening? Why?
Compare the passage on page 225, about the alarm clock going off, to the first paragraph from Marisa Silver’s story “What I Saw from Where I Stood”:
Dulcie is afraid of freeways. She doesn’t like not being able to get off whenever she wants, and sometimes I catch her holding her breath between exits, as if she’s driving past a graveyard. So, even though the party we went to last week was miles from our apartment in Silver Lake, we drove home on the surface streets.
This paragraph has more tension than does the first example. What contributes to the tension in this passage?
First of all, a woman named Dulcie (and just naming a character creates a little bit of tension—we will invest more in someone with a name than in “the girl” or “a man”) is afraid. There is a clear threat. Weird, but clear: freeways.
Dulcie drives the other person in the story home the long way. She wants something. To avoid something? To extend her time with the driver? To delay going home?
The “I” (the narrator) catches Dulcie “holding her breath.” Dulcie’s tense. That makes us tense. Plus, we worry about the effect of all of Dulcie’s desires on the narrator: the fear of freeways, the route demands, her anxiety. What is up with her?
Three simple sentences. Quite a bit of tension. How? The focus is on the character’s desire, which is used to set the thermostat: to create heat. Start your piece with a problem.
To establish the tension temperature, we need: a person; the person wanting something rather strongly; and finally, something keeping that person from getting what she wants.
In chart form, it looks like this:
The Four Elements of Tension
|1. PERSON: A person with a problem.||Be specific. Provide age, station in life, situation, location, cultural/social information.|
|2. DESIRE: The person wants something specific—has a strong desire.||What the person wants drives the entire passage. Ideally, the character/speaker has an external, physical desire that parallels or contrasts with an interior, psychological need.|
|3. STAKES: What the person wants is very important—it has to matter to her, greatly.||What is at stake for this person? What if she doesn’t get what she wants? How bad will it be? Whatever she wants, she needs to want it a lot, even (especially) if it is a little thing. If your character doesn’t care about what happens, the reader won’t either.|
|4. OBSTACLES: The person has to be thwarted by obstacles that keep her from getting what she wants. Obstacles can be opponents (another person or people interfering with the goal) or forces (grief, fear, weather, etc.). Obstacles need to be realistic and meaningful and have consequences.||When the person gets what she wants, the piece is over, the tension is resolved. During the piece, don’t let the character get what she wants and/or keep creating new needs, new wants. Your job as a writer is to move her closer to her need, and then either move her farther away or have the meeting of the need create a new desire.|
Find the four components of “setting the thermostat” in a section of Marisa Silver’s story “What I Saw from Where I Stood” (p. 251). What tension(s) are set in the section of the story? Use the chart above to create an analysis of the four elements of tension.
In Silver’s story, Dulcie wants to manage her fears. She wants to be happy again (interior psychological want). This is a high-value desire: She might ruin her relationships, asking too much of those who love her. She might never recover from grief. What she wants—the bad things to not have happened—is completely and utterly not-gettable. The force of despair is as strong as her desire to change her life situation.
Notice that in this short story, as in most, things start bad—fear of freeways—and the writer keeps giving more information that increases the tension. Moving in closely again on that excerpted passage, notice that in addition to the freeway fear, Dulcie holds her breath. The party is far away (higher stakes). Notice how Silver, the writer, is dialing up the tension one notch at a time, one sentence at a time.
Narrative poetry (poetry that tells a story, as opposed to lyric poetry, which expresses a single feeling or emotion) also uses the components of tension in order to set the thermostat and keep reader interest high.
Find Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking” online and consider how he balances the forces of tension. Does he use all four components from the chart on page 227? Find words or phrases that support each component.
In Theodore Roethke’s famous poem “The Waking,” the battle is between the speaker and his question about his own life, his struggle to trust that his intuition, rather than his intellect, might take him where he needs to go. Life is a process, not a destination, he seems to say in this powerful poem. The speaker desires a meaningful life, and one that has room for questions and paradoxes; thus, “I wake to sleep” creates enormous tension. “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear” reveals high stakes—not much is more important to us than fate—and strong desire—I want to live a certain way. Obstacles abound. What might seem clear and certain to others—l ight, nature, the ground, God, truth—for this speaker creates an opportunity to question, to pause. He preserves, against great odds, a dream-like state. Sleep—not knowing—reveals connection to intuition. Intuition will guide him. It’s slow living this way, worm-slow. But step-by-step, maintaining awareness in the face of tension—you get where you need to go.
Work with Two or Three Characters
Never work with one character who is alone. Always work with two or three characters so that you can have “sides.” When you write just one person, you tend to rely on thoughts because there can be nothing at stake. It’s hard to create tension with a character alone onstage, lost in thought. We don’t see a lot there. We don’t have much to engage with as readers. Solo is boring. Two’s a game. Three is always interesting—because there is so much more opportunity for problems to arise.
Match Your Opponents
When do you leave a game early, before the final score? When it’s clear one side will win. Nothing is at stake in the fourth period when the score is 108–15. As a writer, the same rule applies. You will lose your reader unless you keep the stakes high.
The “sides,” the power struggle—the thing the person wants and the thing keeping her from getting it—have to be equally matched.
Power shifts generate and sustain tension. Review our formula for creating tension:
A person who wants something important badly, who is experiencing difficult obstacles that are keeping him/her from getting the things he/she wants.
Think of a sporting match. A good game. What do you notice? There are two sides. If your team goes out on the field to practice, the group doesn’t pretend to have a game against no one. You divide up, shirts and skins. You have to have sides.
In a great game, a really tense match, the kind you stay into triple overtime in pouring rain to see finalized, the sides are evenly matched—it’s not going to be a blowout.
Super close. Triple overtime. We in the stands are on the edges of our seats, worrying the whole time. Who is going to win? And, more important, how are they going to get from where they are now to that win? Each play is riveting. Every step, every pass, every glance matters.
If you are on the winning team, a blowout can be fun, but not for the spectators (i.e., the readers). For them, there is no tension. You don’t want to be the writer having all the fun—the piece has to work for the readers.
Dimension means contradiction.
— ROBERT McKEE
In “What I Saw from Where I Stood,” Grief is a worthy opponent. Charles uses his love for Dulcie to combat Grief. For Dulcie, Grief keeps taking form: first the hoodlums, then the pestilence. We don’t know if she—and she and her partner—will make it or not. That’s the tension in the story. Dulcie and Charles are good and young and strong. But they have been hit hard. Will they make it? That’s the tension. To find out the answer to that question, we track the battle that is the story. Even the title indicates this is a report from the front lines, an eyewitness account.
Good poems always have tension, too. In Sebastian Matthews’s “Buying Wine (p. 70), the children have a powerful hope that things will be okay in their family; but the adult has all the power and, in this case, is not safe. But he has young children. Opposing forces. In a play or memoir or comic, the tension lines dictate the story. The more tense a piece is, the more readers will be attracted to it.
Read two pieces in this textbook, from two different genres. For each piece, find the four elements of tension. What are the opposing forces? Remember: The “battle” can be between two people or two forces. Are the opposing forces equally matched?
Generalizations kill tension. Another habit writers accidentally fall into is writing general instead of writing specific. “They fought” sums up what happened; no tension there. The summary gives a general impression and will never be as tense and interesting as us getting to see the specifics of how. “Carlo sliced the letter across Joey’s face, and the papercut beaded blood drops on Joey’s pale cheek.”
Compare “it was such a drag driving across town and always boring” to the paragraph detailing Dulcie’s highway-avoidance rituals. Detail—getting very specific—is actually a method you use to create and sustain tension.
The business of the novelist is not to chronicle great events, but to make small ones interesting. —ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER
Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers, employs this principle. He avoids the general and always names the specifics, which increases the tension in his award-winning writing. Notice how the visual details, the images, increase the tension in this piece.
A good diver reveals himself in the way he gears up. He is at one with his equipment. He knows where every piece goes; every strap is the perfect length, every tool expertly placed, and everything fits. He moves instinctively, his hands and stuff in a swoop-tug-and-click ballet until he is transformed into sea creature. He rarely needs help. If another diver moves to assist him, he will usually decline, saying, “No, thank you” or, more likely, “Don’t touch my shit.” He favors ten-dollar knives over the hundred-dollar versions because when he loses the cheaper ones, he does not feel obligated, under the pressure of narcosis, to risk his life searching the bottom to rescue them. He cares nothing for the prettiness of his gear, and often tattoos it with patches, stickers, and graffiti that testify to past dive exploits. Neon colors do not exist for him; greenhorns who choose those hues don’t have to wait long before hearing the boat’s opinion on such loudness. When he is fully geared up, a good wreck diver looks like a German car engine; more ordinary divers resemble the interior of a child’s toy chest.
Kurson could simply say that professional wreck divers relate to their equipment differently than amateur divers. The “versus” is implied: good divers versus newbies. However, there’s not a lot of tension there. The fight isn’t really equal; of course the better divers are better.To keep the tension in this passage high, Kurson uses specifics. We see that the quirks of the great divers all have a reason, an important reason. The better divers are smart. They’re odd, they’re messy, they’re arrogant (“Don’t touch my shit”). They have to be, in order to survive. The same specific qualities that aid them in getting dressed, on land, Kurson shows us, are the very ones that let them live while others may die.
Write from Close Up
He sat in the room for a long time.
What do you see in that sentence? What image appears in your mind’s eye? What do you feel about the “he”? Anything at all?
The writer of this sentence has generalized time (it’s a “long” time, but we have no idea how long and, more important, when). The writer has also generalized space. It’s just generally a room. There’s no situation. There’s not actual space we can touch and move around in.
There is no tension because there’s nothing there.
Write from close up. Be in the time—the exact moment—and the space—Apartment 4D, Sunset Heights, golden retriever and girlfriend on sofa—you are writing.
Distance kills tension. You want to avoid distance. Write from a close-up position, tight with your characters, the details, and the emotion; not from too far back. Your images training in Chapter Four has prepared you to write from within the experience, not hovering above, a reporter, or hiding behind the veil of time.
Many beginning writers write as though they are on a stage. The audience—the reader—is looking at the curtain, waiting for it to rise. But the beginning writer often reports to the audience—so that the play is going on behind the curtain. The writer sees it, and explains what is happening back there. This is not very pleasurable for the audience. We want the intermediary removed.
When you write, move closer, and you will increase the tension every time. Be in the room with the famous musician; be in the yard that is forbidden, looking for your lost baseball; be driving with your grieving girlfriend, clueless as to what to do next. Don’t write aboutthe experience, or you kill the tension. Don’t look back, remember, think, or reflect: Stay in the moment. And stay close in. Write from a few inches away from your subject.
A lot of what you are doing when you work to create or increase the tension in a piece of creative writing is about creating oppositions.That is, you set qualities in the work against each other. A beautiful beach scene is the location for a woman telling her husband she wants a divorce. A boy tells a girl how much he hates his parents while carefully cleaning out the family garage, devoted to his task (his dialogue shows us he just wants to look cool in front of the girl).
In each of these cases, the setting and the action clash. Tension is created by working with exterior visual oppositions. But oppositions also must be created within characters.
The good guy has to have some weaknesses. Seinfeld is a neat-freak and germaphobe. The bad team has to have some good traits. Newman is a brilliant strategist and usually gets what he wants. Hamlet is kind and insightful but hesitates to make decisions. The Joker is evil, but very, very funny. Readers have to be able to connect with both “good” and “bad” characters for the piece to work on them.
Consider the power of juxtaposition. If the kittens are terribly cute, and you smile when you play with them, and their ribbons are pink, you are putting cuteness next to delight next to adorableness—there’s not any surprise there. There’s nothing for the reader to engage with. No tension.
You create tension when you put things that don’t rest easily next to each other: adorable kittens, deep rejection, your angry mother. A broken barrette, a brother in trouble, a new car, the perfect pizza. A great date, a car accident.
Three useful strategies help you create and sustain tension in a piece of writing: the “thermostat”—the amount of tension in any given line or sentence; layers, which allow you to create and increase tension by moving your work from the simple to the complex (e.g., more than one thing is going on at once; you aren’t stating the obvious); and, dialogue, used in special ways. All three strategies help create the oppositions and layers that make creative writing interesting to read.
Thermostat Control: Adjusting the Temperature
The secret to creating tension, in life and on the page, is to vary the situation. Ups and downs are much harder for us (and therefore much more successful in literature) than a steadily awful time. If things go from bad to worse, we can usually adapt. What drives us to the brink of madness is when the situation is bad (the line for Math Add is terrifically long), but it improves (Joe lets us cut ahead of him in line), and then gets worse (the Drop/Add people are leaving for lunch just when you get to the front of the line), and then much worse (your two boyfriends show up at the Drop/Add counter to confront you, loudly).
And then better.
In real life it’s called “being jerked around.”
Tension is ups and downs, back and forth, tension and the release of tension. This up-and-down is the rhythm of creative writing. Change appeals to our basic need for stimulation. Don’t let your reader adapt. Once he gets the emotional tenor of one line, you have to change it up again. Be thoughtfully unpredictable. Don’t let your piece remain at the same tension level for long.
Reread the poem “Buying Wine” by Sebastian Matthews (p. 70). Notice the tension level in the first stanza. A choice is always imbued with some tension; here the choice is backseat or Wine Mart. Each one has pluses and minuses. Somewhat arbitrarily, we could assign a number to that level of tension, on a scale of 1 to 5. Let’s say it’s a 2. Because the speaker in the poem is a child, either choice is at least a little scary.
In the second stanza, the tension goes down—the boy is in the store, trailing Dad, and things look good, orderly, even familiar, “like bat racks.” The tension is perhaps a 1. But not for long. In stanza 3, the cart is “ever-filling”—and this is not good and it’s getting worse because the father is “unkempt” and pretty much flinging liquor into the cart in the aisle. Tension in stanzas 3 through 5 could be said to dial up quickly; 2, 3, then 4. In stanza 5, Matthews ratchets the tension meter back down—the speaker, a child, sees his father shopping here as he shops at the meat store. Things are okay, aren’t they? We’re just shopping for food. It’s good to match wines and food, put a pinot grigio with scallops … right? The tension dances down to near 1.
Notice the leap that occurs between stanzas 7 and 8. While the boy is adjusting to his father’s wine-shopping ritual, he slips into a reverie, remembering other wine store trips where he made the other choice and stayed in the car. Whenever a writer switches locations, pops into a flashback, moving back in time and space, the reader experiences a tension shift. “Often, we’d stay in the car” moves the tension from 1 back up to 2 or 3, and then in the second line of stanza 8—notice the tension shift in that “dwindling capacity to believe our father” comment. Boom. This isn’t a kid who still worships his dad. This is a kid who has been disappointed by this dad many, many times. That statement charges the poem with energy, intensity.
That intensity is increased—to a 5, perhaps, on the tension meter—in the next stanza, where the kids in the backseat are imagined as free from the car, roaming. Unsupervised offspring of an alcoholic father, “like horses” for a moment, and anything could happen. Lots of tension here. Which drops back down when the boys are, sadly, drawn to the liquor store window, to peek in, glimpse “snippets of [the] father’s profile.” They want to be like him. They want to be with him. They want to be free. The tensions in the poem are further dialed up a notch in the line when he disappears “behind the tall cardboard stacks” as if he’s being swallowed up by liquor, which, in fact, he is.
Map of tension in Sebastian Matthews’s poem “Buying Wine” ( p. 70 ). Tension level ranges from 1 to 5. The arrows represent the direction of the tension; the length of the arrows indicates how much the tension increases or decreases.
When the kid loads up his own cart in stanza 12, do you see that as more or less drastic than the preceding stanza? Some readers will say it’s just as tense: a 4 or a 5. Because the boy is hurt so deeply in the preceding stanza, seeing his dad disappear, other readers will see this stanza as less tense—a kid acting like a kid. Readers will react differently; what’s important for you as the writer is to keep changingthe intensity.
When the speaker is dreaming of parties, some readers may feel this is the most tense part of the poem because it’s so easy to imagine the speaker going down a bad path. Others will believe that the final image, of the father holding “wine bottles like babies in his hands,” creates the deepest emotional impact of the entire poem, as we see the father being more careful with the wine than with his real children.
Remember: If everything is at the same high level of excitement, your reader will grow just as bored as if there were no tension at all. Scientists and psychologists have shown definitively that the human mind adjusts quickly; it is designed to adapt. It’s part of the human genius. We get used to things very, very quickly—loud background noise disappears, our surroundings homogenize, we don’t notice changes in family members we see every day. Give us a bad situation, and it’s human nature to adapt. Just when the room is getting too hot, turn down the thermostat; make the reader cool off. Then, just as the reader is cooling, crank the heat back up. That’s the oppositional nature of this strategy: When things get bad, they have to get worse. When they get worse, they then have to get better.
As you practice, you will find more ways to intensify and manipulate the temperature. The chart on page 236 lists various elements of a piece of writing, presenting ways for adjusting the thermostat and modulating tension.
Read the poem “Hustle” by Jericho Brown (p. 112), written in a form called ghazal. Read the poem aloud and again silently. The title offers a key to understanding how the seemingly unrelated couplets connect: “Hustle” has several meanings; one is to treat someone roughly. In a ghazal, each couplet introduces a different aspect of the main topic. In the first couplet (a couplet is a two-line stanza), we read a mysterious set of lines about being in prison. We may need to look up the reference to Dwayne Betts. (At sixteen, Betts, a stellar student, made some very poor decisions, committed a crime, was tried as an adult, and spent eight years in prison. He’s now a professor, poet, and memoirist.) Brown’s poem continues to ask us to look up things we do not know, to read on for more information. In this way, he creates tension for the reader—an insistent need to know more. Who are these people? How do these things relate to each other? Alice Walker’s famous novel is referenced, as are other accounts of violence and injustice. Brown insists the reader put the story together on his or her own. He wants the reader to feel tension: That’s part of his point.
In a ghazal, the couplets aren’t supposed to connect directly. The poem is actually thirteen two-line minipoems. For some readers, this is simply too much tension. But for patient readers, the rewards are great. The point here is this: Practice adjusting the thermostat, moving from high-tension moments to simple moments, intense heat to calm peace. Thermostat control gives you power over your reader.