Monthly Archives: January 2010

Conflict and Tension

I don’t know how other writers work, so whenever I talk about writing subjects (which will presumably be most of the time, all things considered), keep in mind that this is just how I do things. There are a zillion different ways to create, and do what works for you.

One of the benefits of taking a lot of writing classes from a lot of different instructors (off the top of my head, fourteen, though all that says is that I’m crazy enough to keep coming back for more) is getting a variety of advice.  They all have different methods and different versions of their own writing bible. In a strange way, it’s kind of like religion, if you’ll excuse the comparison – you have a wide variety that covers just about everything you can think of, but even with that diversity, there’s still a common thread. And there’s one common thread in every single class I’ve taken, book on writing I’ve read, and advice I’ve seen in writing blogs:

Conflict drives the story, and every single scene in every single chapter in every single story you write needs some form of it.

I’m sure there are exceptions, but as a reader, in my experience if a scene doesn’t have tension, chances are I’m going to skip it. We’re not talking life or death here – just enough to push the reader forward, to entice, to compel. To make them come back for more.

You can write a beautiful, romantic scene about a girl surprising her sick boyfriend at his place with some chicken soup and his homework. They lay on the couch all afternoon, watch a movie, and she kisses him even though he’s a germy mess.

Or that same girl can surprise her sick boyfriend with some chicken soup and homework, only to discover she’s not the only thoughtful girl at school. Who is the other girl? Is the boyfriend fighting off another girl who has a crush on him? Or is he cheating? Or is it someone who hates him so much that she’s trying to poison him? And if so, what did he do to deserve it?

Extreme example and a little out there, but same point. A lesser example:

1. Girl is getting ready for her first day of school. She has the perfect outfit, she woke up two hours early to do her hair, she has new shoes, perfect makeup, and the latest in fashion hanging off her arm. Her perfect boyfriend picks her up from her perfect house in her perfect neighborhood, and they go to their rich private school where they’re king and queen of the seniors.

2. Girl is getting ready for her first day of school. Her alarm clock didn’t go off, she’s running late, her mother’s screaming for her to get her butt out of bed, and she can’t find her hairbrush – which she left at her father’s house across town the day before in her rush to leave him, his new wife, and their screaming baby. Not to mention the guy she’s in love with is the one picking up Miss Perfect from the first example.

Who’s more interesting? There’s something to be said for the first example. Who doesn’t want that life? Who doesn’t want to be perfect? But that’s a fantasy, not a layered story that will keep readers turning pages. If you’re solely writing to play out a fantasy, then have at it. But if you’re writing for an audience and to possibly sell your work, you need some form of conflict in everything you do.

The second character should feel more defined and easier to relate to. Someone who could exist. Why? Because of the conflict. Because not everything goes right all the time, and people don’t generally pick up books to read 60,000 words about Miss Perfect. They pick up books to read about a character who struggles against conflicts, whatever they happen to be, and whose journey interests them enough to read every single one of those words.

So if you’re having trouble with a particular part of your story that feels flat or boring, one of the first things you should look at is how to increase the conflict and tension. Ramp it up. Don’t be afraid of it. Look at the conflict in scenes you already have and explore other options to see if you can’t make things a little more tense, like the girl with the chicken soup. And you never know – you might surprise yourself and find a new plot point that makes your story even more fantastic.