In this month’s Getting Unstuck, assistant editor Jen Dupree dives into resources for ramping up the tension in your story. If you feel uncertain about the differences between conflict and tension, or you’re worried your most recent draft lacks one or the other (or both), look no further!
In life, I avoid conflict and tension as much as possible, but in stories and essays, I’m desperate for them. While tension and conflict are related, they aren’t exactly the same thing. K.M. Weiland offers a quick and helpful overview; she says conflict “indicates outright confrontation” while tension is “the threat of conflict.” We (the reader) worry about something happening and then something happens. Sounds simple, but it’s not.
At TMR, we see a fair number of submissions that lack conflict or tension (or both). Maybe there’s a guy on a park bench talking to a kid who’s lost. Maybe they talk for a long time about the kid’s parents and the old man’s dog and then a bus comes and the old man should get on it but he doesn’t because he’s worried about the kid. There’s the potential for tension here if we dive into the worry the man might be feeling about what he’s supposed to do with this kid, but there’s not really any conflict because nothing really happens. Conversely, the old guy is sitting there and the kid comes up, all distraught because he’s lost and then the parents show up and start accusing the old man of kidnapping the kid and the old man punches the dad—you get the idea. Lots of conflict, but no real tension because the story doesn’t slow down long enough for the reader to anticipate something happening and to get a sense for why it matters.
Conflict and tension coexist. There’s the over-arching thing that’s at stake in the story (conflict) and all the feeling associated with the outcome of that thing (tension). Driving it home: In this episode of School For Writers, host Lauren Marie Fleming says tension is “unsaid issues, simmering feelings, or an idea that something is going to happen” while conflict is “an obvious struggle the protagonist is having.”
In this episode of #AmWriting guest Tiffany Yates Martin suggests the writer “look in each scene for where you have created a question or an uncertainty in the reader’s mind.” Host KJ Dell’Antonia adds that you should “look for the road block in each scene.” I’m constantly asking (of my own work and the submissions I’m reading), What’s at stake? Who wants what? What are they willing to do to get it? What’s preventing them from getting it? If you’re asking these questions and the answer is “nothing,” there’s probably no conflict. If you’re asking, “Why does it matter?” and the answer is, “It doesn’t,” then there’s probably not enough tension.
Sometimes when we discuss tension and conflict, we think we have to think big. We think conflict means explosion, car accident, kidnapping, murder. We think tension means sobbing, screaming, hysteria. And those can all be valid things that happen and valid responses to things that happen, but conflict and tension can also be small and subtle. Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is one example of how a small moment (a mother in a doctor’s office, waiting for a diagnosis) can be full of conflict (we know she’s found blood, we know they’re testing the baby for cancer) and tension (the baby is flicking the light switch on and off, on and off while the doctor tries to explain things to the mother). This same story could have been all conflict if it started with the cancer diagnosis (which we never actually get in the story, although we come away knowing it) and had the mother a weeping, wailing mess in the doctor’s office. Instead, we feel the tension build and build as she tries to keep it together. Her not falling apart is way more stressful because we’re waiting and waiting and waiting.
Sometimes creating conflict or tension requires you to make a change during revision, and that can be scary. In this episode of The Shit No One Tells You about Writing, host Bianca Marais says that to elevate the tension and conflict, think about “What can you jiggle around?” Guest author Amita Parikh, author of The Circus Train, realized after a series of rejections that she needed to do something to create more tension in her novel and so she set them in motion (hence the train). Taking characters from a static location and adding unpredictable change gave Parikh’s novel both the conflict and tension it needed to engage readers. That’s a pretty big change, but it doesn’t have to be. On the scene level, especially, adding conflict can be something like a misunderstanding between two characters, an interruption, a dropped dish or set of keys, an unexpected phone call. And then the tension comes in with how the characters react internally and externally to that conflict.
Creating tension is hard for me, and I know it’s hard for other writers. I get swept away by pretty sentences and scenes in which I’m describing the setting, or having my characters say really witty, engaging things. It’s all so good on the sentence level but…nothing happens. Conversely, I come across stories that are all conflict—one terrible thing after another happens to a character, but those stories often lack tension because there’s no time to pause, no moment of reflection. Ultimately, stories need trouble, and that trouble has to matter to the characters.
by Jen Dupree