Every writer I know agrees on one thing: you can't tell a good story without conflict. Your main character needs to want (or not want) something, and the writer's work is to dramatize that desire, or lack thereof—mostly by throwing obstacles in said main character's way.
Another fun way to generate tension focuses on a story's structure; specifically, writing a story disguised as another form of writing. Take, for example, Lorrie Moore's "How to Become a Writer," which begins with these lines:
First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age—say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She'll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a donut. She'll say: "How about emptying the dishwasher?" Look away. Shove the forks in the fork drawer. Accidentally break one of the freebie gas station glasses. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.
The tension in this first paragraph is generated—at least in part—because the story is doing something unusual: it's unfolding, quite unconventionally, like a series of instructions. There's often a delicious awkwardness about a story brave enough to masquerade as another form of writing, and I'd argue that it's because the chosen disguise never really quite fits; one effect of a story appropriating another form of writing—whether it be instructions like these, or a letter, blog post, or Twitter feed—is that the form it takes possession of, even if it retains enough of the form's recognizable conventions (in this case, Moore's string of imperatives), ceases to function the way it normally would, which makes sense, of course, because the story has taken control. Case in point: though the string of imperatives that make up "How to Become a Writer" are identifiable as directions, trying to actually follow those directions would be impossible (not to mention completely absurd); they're far too specific, and were clearly written with a particular person in mind: the story's main character. Furthermore, what set of effective instructions has ever implored its reader to "fail miserably"? But that's the beauty of this process: a particular form of writing becomes enlivened and re-envisioned, all because a particular storyline has taken the reins.
The painter David Hockney, once said, "Limitations are really good for you. They are a stimulant. If you were told to make a drawing of a tulip using five lines, or one using a hundred, you'd be more inventive with the five." I wholeheartedly agree. Writing a story disguised as another form necessitates that a writer work against—and with—limitations. In "Flying the Coop," by Amy Marcott, the author formats the story to resemble an online discussion board: she labels each entry with a timestamp and the username of the person posting it. The resulting story centers on a conflict between a woman who has asked a question about the birds she's seen outside the window of her husband's room at the assisted living facility where he lives and another user who points out that, because the purpose of the forum is to discuss the effects of Alzheimer's, the woman's post should be considered off topic. The story's form dictates that the characters themselves become writers, and a vigorous and heartbreaking argument between a number of users ensues.
"Officers Weep" by Daniel Orozco, follows two police officers who are having an affair, and assumes the form of a police blotter: each entry starts with the address where an incident occurred, followed by a report. Each report is written—at least at first—in the clipped, impersonal style one might associate with an efficient note-taker, but we soon find the sentences blooming with vivid descriptions and languorous digressions, which mirror the burgeoning romance between the officers, as well as the subversive nature of the relationship, since at least one of them is married.
This interplay that results from a story and the particular form it appropriates can be exciting for both writer and reader; there's always a question of which particular conventions of the particular form the story will reproduce and which it will discard, subvert, or enlarge. I've found that pouring a story into one of these forms—whether it be a will & testament, an Advanced Placement exam, or epitaph—gives me the opportunity to both follow and to break a certain number of rules, and also to re-imagine the kinds of spaces stories can occupy. If nothing else, it's a way to invigorate my fiction, and to get other writers—and readers—excited about the possibilities of written expression.