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Thoughts on Conflict and Tension

Every writer agrees that conflict is the basis of story, but we all seem to define "conflict" a different way. Here are some sample definitions I see around the Internet.

  • Something that creates dramatic tension.
  • Something that prevents a character from getting what he wants or values.
  • A struggle between two or more forces which drives the action of the plot.

Though these are all accurate, I don't think any of them are quite complete. Dramatic conflict is difficult to define succinctly because, though it's a noun, it's not a "thing." It's a descriptor of the relationship between things.

An external conflict is the relationship between a character with a goal and other characters or forces that prevent him from achieving it. For example, the piglet Wilbur wants to live happily with his spider friend Charlotte, but Farmer Zuckerman wants to slaughter him. Only one of them can get what he wants, so these two characters are in conflict.

An internal conflict is the relationship between two aspects of the same character, like what he wants to do vs. what he must do, or who he wants to be vs. who he is. For example, Anne Shirley wants to be a respectable young lady, but she's too impulsive and gets herself into many comedic scrapes. Her wishes and compulsions are in conflict.

Why is conflict important?

The first suggested definition of conflict, "Something that creates dramatic tension," is very vague, but it gets at the root of why conflict is so important. Conflict creates tension, the excitement an audience feels when anticipating how characters will react to a situation. Tension is what makes fiction interesting and addictive. Readers keep turning the pages to see whether Wilbur will outwit the farmer and survive, or whether Anne will grow up and be accepted by the people of Avonlea.

I thought I understood conflict and tension pretty well, but then last month I read Mary Kole's Writing Irresistible Kidlit and had a Eureka! moment. Kole presented two graphs like these.

Image of a classic narrative arc

Image of a protagonist's emotional arc

My moment of insight was that these two graphs show the same thing. The graph of narrative tension shows the distance between a character's emotional state and happiness. Introducing conflict takes a character further away from happiness, which creates anxiety in the audience as they sympathize with him and root for him. Resolving conflict drains narrative tension by allowing the character and audience to feel at ease.

Perhaps instead of happiness, I should say "potential for happiness." There's no tension when a character sits around moping about the pointlessness of life. There is tension when a character wants very much to live happily ever after with his college sweetheart, but she disappears without a trace, and he's desperate to find her. This creates a conflict between the hero and the unknown enemies that ruined his future, and resolving it will drain the tension. In a feel-good resolution, the hero might fulfill the potential for happiness by reuniting with his true love. In a tragic one, he might lose the potential for happiness forever by discovering she was murdered.

Of course most stories are more complex, with many serial conflicts and side conflicts to raise the tension up to the climax. Enemy forces aren't what they seem to be, characters hurt themselves because they don't recognize what will really make them happy, etc.

Plot Point Conflict/Resolution
The hero wakes up on the day of his wedding and finds that his fiance has disappeared. Conflict #1: hero vs. the unknown
The police assume the bride got cold feet, and nobody takes the hero's concerns seriously. Conflict #2: hero vs. authority
A hiker finds the fiance's body in the woods. Tragic resolutions of #1 and #2
In his grief, the hero vows to find and exact revenge on the person who killed the love of his life. Conflict #3: hero vs. the murderer
The hero finds the murderer, but he also finds a letter his fiance wrote in captivity, asking him not to let this evil person destroy his life as well as hers. The hero is torn. Conflict #4: the hero's bloodlust vs. his desire to honor his fiance's wishes
In the final showdown, the hero points a gun at the murderer. He struggles between the urge to pull the trigger and the memory of his fiance's last words. He decides his fiance wouldn't have wanted him to become a monster himself, and he lowers the gun. Resolutions of #3 and #4

Whether that last table row provides a satisfying conclusion to the story depends on the genre. Noir-type audiences can tolerate the hero walking away and the culprit disappearing into the mists, but cozy audiences won't feel that Conflict #3, between the hero and murderer, is truly resolved until they see the bad guy dead or incarcerated. They need the threat of future conflict eliminated completely to feel at peace.

What makes a conflict interesting and effective?

Adding effective conflicts to stories isn't terribly difficult. You simply need to identify what's vital to a character's happiness, then threaten it or snatch it away. Even better, pit it against something else that's vital to the character's happiness, but she can't have both.

For example, in a cute chick lit novel, the Manhattanite heroine might find happiness by forgiving her repentant ex-boyfriend and giving their relationship another shot. But that's hard for her to do because...

  • ...her pride is very important to her. She wants to kiss and make up, but she stubbornly gives him the cold shoulder instead. (Internal conflict)
  • ...her family is very important to her. Her parents care a lot about their reputation in high society and dislike the ex-boyfriend because he's a starving violinist. (External conflict)
  • ...fidelity is very important to her, and she's now dating a kind and handsome stock broker who adores her. (Both internal and external conflicts)

Interesting conflicts force characters to face tough choices and evaluate their priorities. Their resolutions will push the story forward by creating more conflicts.

Say the heroine is facing all three conflicts above. She conquers her pride and confesses to the stock broker that she still has feelings for her ex. But instead of bowing out, the stock broker shows up at one of her mother's charity events, where the ex is in the string quartet providing entertainment. In front of everyone, the stock broker gets down on one knee, proclaims his undying love, and proposes with a giant diamond ring.

Now we have an exciting new batch of conflicts. If the heroine turns the stock broker down, she'll humiliate him and her parents. If she accepts, she'll hurt the man she loves and trap herself in an engagement she doesn't want. Either decision will create even more conflicts that must be resolved before she and the violinist can live happily ever after.

Do bigger conflicts create more tension?

While raising the stakes of a conflict can increase tension, raising them too high can backfire. If the character's plight becomes too unbelievable or unrelateable, readers won't care anymore.

In our hypothetical chick lit novel, say the heroine's father is the CEO of a sports apparel company, and his biggest client is a department store owned by the stock broker's father. This would make the proposal scene more interesting because it makes the heroine's decision more difficult. If she embarrasses the stock broker and angers his family, she could endanger her parents' livelihood.

But say, instead, that the heroine's grandmother has a heart condition, and the heroine is afraid that the shock of a scandal will kill her. This would just come across as melodramatic. Everyone in contemporary America can sympathize with the fear of causing offense and alienating important people. Nobody worries about accidentally killing grandma by turning a guy down.

The key to raising tension isn't necessarily making conflicts "bigger," but making them more painful. If your fluffy romance is boring, you won't fix it by dropping in some mobsters to shoot the hero and kidnap the heroine. You should instead fix it by making the relationship, or the obstacles to it, more heartbreaking for the characters involved.

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