Using Conflict to Build Tension

My friend Becca Puglisi is here today with a fab post about how to use conflict and tension effectively. Enjoy!

One of my favorite Aha moments as a writer came in the form of feedback from a critiquer. (Shout out to all the critique partners!) She kept writing notes in my manuscript, like Where’s the tension? and This would be a good spot to add some 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 business is about to go under. I mean, there is conflict ALL OVER the place, so how can she say there’s no tension??

After chewing on this for a while, I realized that I was confusing tension with conflict. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, 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. Maybe it’s a confrontation with an adversary, a downed tree that blocks the character’s path, the alarm not going off on the morning of an important meeting, or a temptation that triggers an internal struggle.

Conflict is whatever makes it harder for the character to achieve their goal. It’s a vital part of creating empathy in the reader as they wonder if the hero is up to the challenge.

Tension in literature is an emotional response from the reader, and conflict is one of the things that elicits it. Think of it in terms of real-life tension—that tight, stretched feeling in your belly that puts you on edge. Where conflict occurs, the character should be feeling some of that tension. If the reader feels it too, an emotional bond is forged that puts the reader more firmly in the character’s corner, rooting for them and turning pages to see if they succeed.

When conflict is done right, it should result in tension. But it doesn’t—not all the time, as my critique partner kindly pointed out. So how do we write stories that are chock full of tension? Here are four tips for making that happen.

Include Conflict in Every Scene. In each scene, your character should have a goal. If they get what they want without any opposition, where’s the fun (or tension) in that? Too many pages without conflict will result in a story that drags and readers who start wondering what’s in the fridge.

So for each scene, know what your character’s after, then add whatever will make it more difficult for them to achieve their goal. The conflict can be big and noisy (a fistfight) or quiet (the character wanting something that’s bad for them), but make sure it’s there. For ideas on possible conflict scenarios, take a look at this database at One Stop for Writers.

Employ a Variety of Conflict Scenarios. Think over the past day and take a quick inventory of all the difficulties you encountered. The list is going to be impressive (and maybe a little overwhelming). It’s going to include not only conflict of varying intensity, but scenarios that touch on different areas of life. The same should be true for our characters. Your spy protagonist is going to have lots of work-related conflict, but they’re also going to encounter relationship friction, moral temptations, power struggles, ticking clock situations, etc. Well-rounded characters should experience conflict in all areas of life. Maintain authenticity (and make things super difficult for them) by varying the conflict scenarios in your story.

Add Some Internal Conflict. While there always will be external forces working against your character, any protagonist traversing a change or failed character arc is going to struggle internally. As the story goes along, they’ll face difficulties that highlight a weakness, challenge a dysfunctional coping mechanism or flawed ideology, and push them to make the changes that will allow them to succeed. The only way they can reach that critical tipping point of meaningful change is if they struggle with their inner demons.

It’s Sarah Connor doubting her ability to become “the mother of the future.”

It’s Jason Bourne slowly realizing who he is, not knowing if he can live with the knowledge, and being unsure how to move forward.

It’s John Anderton—cop and neuroin addict—wrestling with the knowledge that the Pre-Crime program he’s devoted his career to may be flawed and even immoral.

Internal conflict is compelling to readers because they’ve been there—wrestling with questions about morality, right and wrong, identity, and a host of other things. They also know what’s at stake for the character should they fail to emerge from those internal struggles with a healthier approach to life.

Make Sure the Stakes are High Enough. We know that conflict doesn’t always result in tension, which means it won’t automatically engage readers. For readers to be unsettled and a little nervous about your character’s future, something significant needs to be at stake: a cost incurred if the protagonist fails to navigate the situation successfully.

So when you’re thinking of the consequences of failure, think in terms of stakes. Each conflict scenario needs a serious or else attached to it. To identify stakes that will greatly impact the character, consider the following:

  • Far-Reaching Stakes: those that may result in loss for many people if the protagonist fails.
  • Moral Stakes: those that threaten the character’s most foundational ideals and beliefs.
  • Primal (Death) Stakes: those involving the loss of something major, such as innocence, a relationship, a career, dream, idea, belief, reputation, or a physical life.

Stakes—even the far-reaching ones—should touch your character on some level. This gives them skin in the game by making things personal and endangering something or someone important. When the reader sees just how high the stakes are, their empathy for the character will grow, and they’ll be more engaged in the story.

We try to avoid tension in real life, but in our books? It’s absolutely vital for holding the reader’s interest. Create and maintain tension by carefully considering the conflicts in your story. Include opposition in every scene, vary the kinds of conflict your character experiences, add some internal struggles, and ensure that the stakes are impactful and you’re sure to raise your character’s blood pressure while keeping readers engaged.

For more information on the role conflict plays in storytelling and how you can use it effectively, check out The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1).

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers.

Her books have sold over 700,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that’s home to the Character Builder and Storyteller’s Roadmap tools.

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series, Mayhem Series and Grafton County Series (Tirgearr Publishing) and is the true crime/narrative nonfiction author of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs (Rowman & Littlefield Group). Currently on submission, her latest true crime project revolves around a grisly local homicide. For the spring 2022 semester, Sue will be teaching a virtual course about serial killers at EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for the Central Virginia Chapter and National Sisters In Crime. Equally fun was when she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

24 thoughts on “Using Conflict to Build Tension

  1. Welcome, Becca. Thanks for clearly delineating two terms that, as you note, are often used interchangeably and thus incorrectly. The way I can keep them straight going forward is to consider conflict as what occurs when your teenager who runs with a fast crowd wants the keys to your Lexus and you say no; tension is what you have in your household for the next month or ten.

  2. Great info, Becca! Thanks.

    I’ve used The Emotion Thesaurus for years and just ordered The Conflict Thesaurus. Looking forward to diving into it.

  3. Welcome, Becca. Thanks for a wonderful post and discussion. There is much to digest here. Thanks for the links. I plan to study those articles and posts.

    The Emotional Thesaurus sits on my stack of reference books beside my writing chair. And The Conflict Thesaurus is now on my TBP To Be Purchased list at Amazon.

    I hope you will return to TKZ with your great insights and clear instruction every time you publish a new thesaurus.

  4. Welcome, Becca! It’s so exciting to have you here.

    I’m in awe of all the thesauruses you and Angela Ackerman have developed. We have the Emotion Thesaurus in our home, and I’ve added Conflict to our writing shelf 🙂

    I’m also looking forward to you and Angela as guests on my Craft of Writing blog in November! There’s a lot of conflict ahead.

    Have a great week.

  5. When I’m working on my WIP, I keep the pdf copy of The Emotional Thesaurus ready to pop up on my computer. And I’ve already bought the pdf version of the Conflict Thesaurus. I hope you return to the Killzone, too!

    • The Emotion Thesaurus really is something special. After all the books we’ve published, it’s still my favorite. I’m happy to know it’s working for you.

  6. Welcome to KZB, Becca. Great breakdown of a vital topic. Keeping the reader turning the pages (physical or virtual) is the goal of every fiction writer, and you’ve given us a great lesson in how to do that with conflict. One of the things I love about conflict in fiction is how it can scale, from a very personal level to a global one, and the very personal can carry huge stakes for a character, as you lay out here.

    The Emotion Thesaurusis in my digital library and I’ve used it a lot in revising my novels. A must-have reference for fiction writers. The Conflict Thesauruswill soon join it.

    Would love to see you back here in the future. Have a wonderful day!

    • Yes, conflict is so versatile. There are so many options, but like every other element of storytelling, we tend to fall back on our favorites, or the obvious choices, and those scenarios fall short of their potential. Thanks for picking up a copy of the Conflict Thesaurus. I hope it helps you a ton!

  7. Excellent advice, Sue.

    Paraphrasing Henry James of THE TURN OF THE SCREW fame, “Let the reader think the evil.” In some cases, the tension is from the reader, not the viewpoint character who is blithely unaware of what the clues are pointing to, but the reader has figured out. The reader KNOWS the killer is stalking the clueless main character, and the tension is somehow worse. That’s a lot of fun to write although very tricky.

    In my case, I wrote one section of a novel from the viewpoint of a 9-year-old boy who was innocent by today’s standards. He didn’t like the woman sniffing around his much older brother, but he didn’t have the life experience to pick up on the clues that she was a sexual and emotional predator. Every step of the way, it was obvious what was happening and what the stakes were, and the reader had to be screaming at the older brother to wake up and run far, far away. Lots and lots of reader tension.

    Frankly, writing stone-cold killers and a genocide monster was easier to write than that little boy. When I write bad people, I look at my own emotional failings and experiences and multiple it by a thousand, but it’s dang near impossible to remove those experiences.

    • So true, Marilynn. I wrote a child predator into one of my books. It’s not easy to pull off, and emotionally draining for the writer (probably the reader, too, as you mentioned), but the story worked.

      I would love to take credit for the advice, but Becca Puglisi wrote this post. 😉

    • No doubt, the most compelling stories are ones where information is strategically withheld—from the protagonist, a cast member, or the reader. Readers want to connect the dots and fill in the pieces, so sometimes it’s just a matter of figuring out what to reveal and what to hold back.

  8. Great summation about conflict vs. tension, Becca. Very well explained and easy to retain. I’ve followed your work for some time and it’s excellent material. Thanks for hosting Becca, Sue!

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