Myosin-driven contraction of the actin cytoskeleton is at the base of cell and tissue morphogenesis. At the molecular level, myosin motors drive contraction by sliding actin filaments past one another using energy produced by ATP hydrolysis. How this microscopic sliding activity gives rise to cell-scale contractions has been an active research question first in muscle cells, and over the last few decades in non-muscle cells. While many early investigations focused on myosin motor activity, increasingly, the nanoscale architecture of the actin network emerges as a key regulator of contractility. Here we review theoretical and in vitro reconstitution studies that have uncovered some of the key mechanisms by which actin network organization controls contractile tension generation. We then discuss recent findings indicating that similar principles apply in cells.