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Crafting conflict and tension

Crafting conflict and tension Crafting conflict and tension
In this article:

    Once you’ve hooked your reader with a killer first chapter, then the hard work begins: keeping the reader engaged in the story. Conflict and tension are key elements to keeping your reader coming back for more. 

    Understanding Conflict 

    Conflict is the problem the story concerns itself with. Whether that’s overthrowing the evil wizard or overcoming past experiences to find love, the conflict shapes the events of the story. The conflict is usually a result of the interaction between the protagonist’s Goal (the thing they desire or are trying to achieve) and the world of the story shaped by the Inciting Incident. 

    Conflict can be internal or external. External conflict is when the protagonist’s Goal or desires are blocked by an external force–either a person or set of people, or the circumstances they find themselves in. Examples of external conflict can vary as widely as a detective trying to solve a mystery, a group of rebels trying to overthrow a corrupt government, or two teenagers competing to be valedictorian. 

    Internal conflict is when the block between the protagonist and their goal is rooted in themselves; the biggest problem in the protagonist’s life is themselves. This could be a belief that they have about themselves (that they don’t deserve love, or that they’ll never amount to anything so why bother trying) or a desire they have that conflicts with another, bigger desire or goal (such as their desire to make their parents proud vs their desire to strike out on their own). In these types of stories, the point is that the protagonist grows and changes in such a way that they are no longer their own problem. Romance stories are very often internal-conflict driven, and the interactions between the romantic leads serve to advance that conflict as the characters grow and change over the course of their relationship. 

    Almost all stories combine internal and external conflict to some degree. A story with mainly external conflict and some internal conflict could be an exiled prince trying to regain his throne (external) but unsure if he really wants the responsibility of ruling and if it is worth the cost (internal). The internal conflict provides a lot of nuance, but the story is really about the external conflict. Stories that lean on external conflict are more common in sci-fi/fantasy, mystery/thriller, paranormal, and some romance subgenres like romantic suspense.  Whereas a story with mainly internal conflict and some external conflict could be two coworkers vying for the same promotion (external) because each believes this is their only shot at success (internal). The external conflict provides the setup, but it’s really the internal conflict and the emotional journey the characters go on that is the focus of the story. These types of stories are more common in contemporary romance and college/new adult, where the focus of the story is on character and relationship growth, rather than on a big external plot. 

    In the previous unit, we talked about introducing conflict in the opening chapter. In order to keep your story Engaging, conflict should be present throughout your story. However, keeping your story in a constant high-conflict state is unsustainable, and you run the risk of numbing your reader out. Think of it like a rollercoaster: you need the contrast of the highs and the lows in order to have a satisfying ride. Some rollercoasters have big highs and correspondingly deep lows, while others are more gentle, but they all vary in speed and altitude in order to deliver the best possible experience. 

    Understanding Tension 

    So, what is tension? If conflict is the problem, tension is how we (and the characters) feel about it. At its most basic, tension is about tantalizing the reader with the possibility of change. Depending on the type of change, tension can be either negative or positive. 

    Negative tension

    Negative tension is when the reader is aware that something terrible could happen at any moment. Being stalked by a monster in the woods or in a high-speed car chase are great examples of very high negative tension, but negative tension doesn’t have to be life or death. It might be as low-stakes as the main character’s fear of embarrassing themselves in front of their crush. Negative tension is driven by fear of a bad outcome, for both the characters and the reader.  

    Positive tension

    Positive tension is when the reader is waiting for something good to happen, like when the reader just cannot wait for the love interests to finally, finally kiss, or when we’re rooting for the underdog team to win the championship. Romantic and sexual tension are the most commonly used types of positive tension, though a character’s positive personal growth throughout the story is also a big driver of positive tension. Positive tension is driven by desire for a good outcome, both for the characters and the reader. 

    Your story can (and ideally should!) use a mix of negative (fear-based) and positive (desire-based) tension, either in the same scenes or in separate scenes. 

    Tension vs Conflict

    At its most basic, we can understand conflict as something bad happening, and negative tension as the threat that something is about to happen. In a positive tension example, we understand conflict as the thing preventing something good from happening, and tension as the desire for the good thing to happen. 

    Solid conflict is the building block of tension, and tension is what makes stories unputdownable.

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