Conflict vs Tension

I've had a writing epiphany that I'm DYING to share with people who won't stare blankly at me while I talk and smile politely when I'm done. Lucky all of you.

One of my critiquers recently said something that made me think. She kept writing notes in my manuscript like Where's the tension? and This would be a good spot to add tension.

No tension? What's she talking about? The main character was just abandoned by her father. Her best friend was attacked by racist pigs. The family farm is about to go under. I mean, there is conflict ALL OVER the place, so how can she say there's no tension??

Well, after chewing on this for awhile, I came to realize that I was confusing tension with conflict. Although the terms are often used interchangeably (and they CAN be synonymous), they aren't necessarily the same.

Blake Snyder (Save The Cat) defines CONFLICT like this: a character enters a scene with a goal and standing in the way is an obstacle. That's conflict, and it's necessary to holding the reader's interest.

TENSION in literature is important because it evokes emotion in the reader. Think of it in terms of real-life tension--that tight, stretched feeling in your belly that makes you all jittery. This is what you want your reader to feel in every single scene of your story. Tension connects the reader with the character and most of the time will keep them reading to the end of the book.

How are the two related? Conflict should create tension. But it doesn't, not all the time. I think of the movies my brother-in-law likes to watch, where things are always exploding and I couldn't care less. Lots of conflict. No tension. Thank God for Teralyn, whose honest comments opened my eyes to this whole idea so I can a) fix my current novel and b) not write another book with this problem.

So how, you might ask, do we write a book that's chock full of tension? Three things:

1. Conflict in every scene. Yes, every single scene. It can be big and noisy (a fistfight) or it can be quiet (a person who wants two opposing things), but make sure it's there. Too many stretches without conflict and the story starts to drag. Your reader loses interest. Examine every scene to make sure there is a clear conflict. If there isn't any, either add some or just throw the scene out, because it's not moving your story forward anyway.

2. Primal stakes. In order for conflict to create tension in your reader, the reader has to care about your character. For that to happen, the reader has to relate to your character's struggle. To paraphrase Blake Snyder again, a plot that hinges on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of a loved one, fear of death, revenge, love, etc. will connect with readers at a basic level because everyone gets those things. One of the problems in my story was that I was trying to push saving the family farm as the character's goal when I should have been pushing survival. In my head, the two were synonymous, but I focused on one and not the other, and the reader didn't make the connection. Make the stakes ones every reader will relate to, and you'll have the tension you need to keep them interested.

3. Clear emotional responses. Sometimes the lack of tension is caused when a writer doesn't clearly convey the character's emotional response to conflict. I've read these stories where something nasty happens to the character but their response to it is flat or understated. And I think, if SHE doesn't care that she just got kicked out of school, why should I? This must not be a big deal after all. Make sure your character's response matches the conflict, in appropriateness and intensity.

There you go. Light bulb on. This is probably old news to many of you, but I figure if I'm struggling with it, maybe someone else is, too. Pay it forward, peeps, pay it forward.

48 comments:

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Great post. Thanks for turning the light bulb on in my head, too.

genelempp said...

Love your epiphanies, Becca! Great advice and something I had puzzling with as well. Thanks, to you and your wonderful crit reader :)

Andrea Mack said...

Thanks, Becca. This is a different perspective on tension and conflict that made me think about it in a new way.

Debbie said...

Great advice.

In an old critique group, one member submitted page after page of conflict and tension that still didn't go anywhere. There was never that "turn" that could take him to the end.

So much to think about when writing, but when you get it right . . . :-D

Ava Jae said...

Fantastic advice! I never really examined the difference between conflict and tension so this is a really great exercise. You made some good points--thank you!

Videkov said...

Great post. This is something I work to include in my writing, and I rarely get it right in my first draft. It ends up being something I layer in during edits. I seem to be able to get the conflict there, but the tension takes more work. As I work on the scene, I layer in the emotion and texture, and that helps increase the tension.

You post helped me see why I'm so frustrated with the current scene I'm editing... I have tons of conflict and fighting since its the climax, but the tension just isn't here because I haven't layered in the emotional response yet.

Todd R. Moody said...

Fantastic Post! I am getting ready to start my rewrites and this is something I need to focus on, thanks for the incite!

Michele Shaw said...

Wow! The most helpful post I've read in quite some time. Now you really have me thinking....
Thank you!

Robyn Lucas said...

So needed this today! Dream agent told me this very thing. Thanks for breaking it down.

Colin Smith said...

Great post, Becca. I'm going to be thinking about my novel all day while I'm at work: where's the conflict/tension in that scene...? What about that scene...? And what about...? :)

Anjola said...

Thanks so much for this insightful post. Now I understand why some of my scenes are flat. I am ready to do a review and rewrite.

Stacy said...

Love this. Great explanation of the difference between the two. I will be checking over my MS to make sure the scenes have both. And now I've got to read Save the Cat. No more putting it off.

M.C. said...

I enjoyed reading this post and how you distinguished between tension and conflict. I also liked the point about primal stakes.

Barbara Watson said...

Thank you, thank you. This is great stuff. Sometimes it's so hard to see what's so close - and our own writing is so close.

Stephanie said...

I've been struggling with this, too. Plenty of conflict, but couldn't figure out the secret formula for tension. Thanks!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Brilliant post, Becca! I'm bookmarking this one for later. :-)

Heather said...

I've had this problem myself. I knew how the character felt so it was tense for me, but I wasn't getting it on the page. That's why that last one, Clear Emotional Response, struck such a chord with me. Excellent post!

thebrokenplaces said...

Wonderful! I'm working on the third draft of a novel, and I'm looking at the first scene. I have re-written this darn scene a hundred times. And it's not that it's bad, but I know that it's not accomplishing what it needs to.

Why? Lightbulb--thank you!--I needed to ask myself why the reader should care about this scene besides that it was a mildly funny prank. And this made me realize that there is actually the potential for a huge amount of tension because the main character actually needs something very primal (a sense of safety) from the other character but doesn't know how to get it.

Again. Brilliant!

JEM said...

Definitely not old news, great post! I think the difference between a good critiquer and a regular reader is a post just like this - being able to identify specifics in each scene that should be there. We can all feel as readers that something is missing, but applying these three rules to each scene to identify tension (and conflict) are actual rules we can follow instead of gut feelings. Love it!

Laura Pauling said...

AWesome! I see conflict as for the overall scene, chapter, or book. I see tension as sentence to sentence, page to page showing the character's response to the conflict! Off to retwee!

Kelly said...

Thanks! Great things to think about while writing!!!

Martha Ramirez said...

Awesome post! Thank you. Will be sharing this.

Jaleh D said...

I had someone tell me there wasn't enough tension in my beginning to one story. It bugged me because the first major conflict isn't supposed to happen right there. But you're right; tension is very different from conflict. I need to get more tension into my quiet beginning so that the conflict has bigger impact and provides even more tension.

Starlight said...

Thanks for bringing this up! Nope, you're not the only one who feels this may be a roadblock in their writing.

Sarah Pearson said...

This is definitely one to bookmark. Thank you for breaking it down so neatly.

Carrie Butler said...

Thanks for sharing, Becca! These are some great things to keep in mind. :)

liseystardust said...

Great article! I agree very much that this is a distinction. In my mind, conflict is more plot-related, while tension is more scene-related and visceral. You can't have tension without conflict, but you CAN have conflict without tension. Tension exists down at the sentence level, and it's communicated through the images and descriptions we pick and way we time scenes.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Awesome post, Becca. I also figured these things out while reading STC. Like you, I thought conflict = tension.

jonathanfigaro said...

Conflicts add to the story. Makes things pop. People want to see drama, see the fist fist fly and hear the screams of pain and panic. Drama and Tension is a great combination for a great story.

Tracey Wood said...

"Things are always exploding and I couldn't care less," LOL! And so agree.

Botanist said...

Fundamental distinction brilliantly explained! Great post.

Jeff King said...

Nice... it always helps to see it broken down.

Diane Fordham said...

Top post Becca, thank you. I definately will be putting more thought into the tension the conflict causes as I write. You explained it so well!

Angie Cothran said...

Fantastic! Need I say more?

Carol Riggs said...

Really good stuff, and GREAT to point out the diff. I've had the same comment on my novels too. Conflict but not tension. Thanks for making this more clear! Now, off to our writing documents to ratchet up the tension...

Lisa Gail Green said...

This is so AWESOME! Thank you. What a great delineation between conflict and tension. Something that I never consciously bothered to define. DUR. I love this post!

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I just got feedback similar to that and was like, wait, what? You can't tell she's suspicious and freaking out?

Turns out after overdoing the inner monologue on a previous book, I've been a bare-bones writer ever since. That means there can be lots of conflict, but only one line of tension. I'm not giving the reader time to soak in it so it becomes meaningful. Just as you said!

Thanks for reaffirming this for me! I needed it.

Anonymous said...

Your Brotherinlaw? My husband's famous!! :). Hi Becca.

Becca Puglisi said...

Kath, I told you you guys should pop in more often. You never know what I'm writing about the family here. MWAHHAHAHAA!!

Kelly McClymer said...

I'm sure it sounds terrible to say this, but I didn't really understand the difference between tension and conflict until I began to teach writing and had to explain in it explicit, specific story-centric terms.

I love Blake Crouch's SAVE THE CAT, but the truth is that saving the farm *and* survival are both stakes that readers understand, but don't feel. The stakes that cause tension are the ones that cause the reader to worry -- sometimes more than the character does (the ubiquitous walking down the basement stairs to investigate a noise :-) Primal stakes have two facets -- the universal (a parent's need to protect a child) and the uniquely character intimate (Sophie's Choice).

I hope, by the time I've taught the concept another decade, I'll finally be able to stop ripping apart my own scene drafts to insert better stakes and raise the tension for the readers, not just for the characters :-)

Theriaka said...

Thanks for sharing this - I'll be re-reading my scenes with a new eye now!

Emily Casey said...

A truly enlightening post, as always.

tracikenworth said...

Great advice. One of my chapters recently was mentioned to "drag" by a cp of mine and reading your column, I think what she really meant was there wasn't enough tension in it. Thanks for the eye-opening!!

Matthew MacNish said...

How in the world did I miss this one? Thanks to Stina, I've now seen it.

Cedric J. Sims said...

I'll keep this in mind when working on my book. Sometimes it's hard to add conflict and tension to every single scene. Maybe that comes from me being a young writer

Stephsco said...

I've been working on #3 in my MS. You're right, the emotional response needs to be enagaging; a character who is overly sensible is no fun! That's where those flaws come in. Easier said than done.

Stéphanie Noël said...

As I'm just about to enter the dreaded revision phase, this is pure gold! I will make sure to review with this in mind.

Laura Pauling said...

Awesome post! I remember the realization of tension vs micro-tension vs macro tension. It can get confusing, but when done well...it's worth it! Good luck on the story!

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