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Using tension, conflict, and cliffhangers to engage readers (In-depth guide)

Using tension, conflict, and cliffhangers to engage readers (In-depth guide) Using tension, conflict, and cliffhangers to engage readers (In-depth guide)
In this article:

    Wattpad is looking for stories that are Immediate, Engaging, and Commercial.

    What do we mean by "Engaging"?

    Engaging means your story catches your reader’s attention and keeps it. An Engaging story has periods of higher and lower conflict and is well-paced (i.e. the reader feels like the story moves from important beat to important beat, leaving them excited to see what happens next, but never bored of what's happening now). Every scene of an Engaging story advances our understanding of the characters or the plot and leaves us wanting more. This is primarily accomplished through the use of Conflict and Tension.

    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 internally 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 our posts on Immediacy, 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 readers 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 a 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.

    Keeping it engaging: The storycoaster

    The easiest way to think about action, conflict, and tension in your story is to think about a rollercoaster. A rollercoaster builds up slowly to a peak and then sends you rushing down from that peak (which is the fun part!). A rollercoaster doesn’t need to be hundreds of feet tall to be fun; it just needs to offer the rider ups and downs. The same is true of stories. Your story doesn’t need to be the most dramatic, it just needs to offer the reader a rhythmic build-up and release of tension and conflict.

    Copy-of-Storycoaster2.png

    Image description: An image of a rollercoaster peak. There are 4 sections of orange text along the first portion of the wave: “Before it Happens” with a large orange arrow moving up the peak, “It Happens” at the top of the peak, “Consequences” with a large orange arrow moving down the peak, and “What Changed?” at the bottom of the peak.

    At the peak of our rollercoaster, we have “It Happens.” But what is “it”? That sense of curiosity is how we want the reader to feel. What’s waiting at the top? What’s going to happen? 

    Climb: Before it happens

    This is the build-up of the scene, where tension (negative, positive, or both!) rises. The action, the actual events happening in the scene, slowly rises in intensity.

    Example: 

    Sammy splashed some water on his face in the bathroom. This was his last chance to tell her how he felt before she left, probably forever. He was stuck in this dead-end town and Tayla was heading to Princeton, where she’d find the perfect guy and they’d have a perfect wedding and live a perfect life together.

    Sammy washed his hands, went to the kitchen, and saw her through the sliding glass doors, where the remnants of a “Congratulations Graduates!” banner hung on for dear life. She was outside, standing next to the pool, laughing with her friends. Her fingernails matched the bright red of the beer cup she was sipping from. A graduation cap had never looked better on anyone. Sammy chugged the last of his drink and marched outside.

    Peak: It happens

    This is the thing the character wants or fears, the moment we’ve been building towards. Note that this builds from what came before. This isn’t a lightning strike coming down and hitting our rollercoaster car, it’s the height we knew was coming when the car started to climb. The peak changes things: that’s what makes it a peak, and not a point on a line.

    Example: 

    As Sammy walked towards her, he grew more confident. This was Tayla; the girl who always laughed at his jokes in chemistry, who baked him cookies on his birthday, who was the last one to leave his mother’s funeral. Before Sammy knew it, he was standing right in front of her.

    “Sammy!” Tayla squealed as she wrapped him in a warm embrace. “Where have you been?”

    “Around,” said Sammy, before he mustered up the courage to say, “Hey, can I talk to you for a sec?” 

    “Of course.” Tayla immediately took his hand and marched him to a quiet corner of the backyard. “What’s up?

    “I… I know that this is going to sound totally crazy, but I want you to know that I love you.”

    “Aw, Sammy. I love you too.”

    “No, Tayla. I’m in love with you.”

    Plunge: Consequences

    The change that happens in the Peak initiates a series of consequences. In a rollercoaster, this is the part where we speed down the hill and scream. In a story, this is where all the promises you made to the reader in The Climb come true.

    Example:

    The words felt incredible coming out of his mouth. It was so natural to tell her that he was in love with her. He could feel the smile growing wider and wider on his face. But then he looked at Tayla. She was not smiling. She was shocked, stunned. Her eyes darted down, searching for something. It felt like an eternity before she finally looked back up at him with a sad frustration. Sammy braced for impact, but her next words hit him like the world's biggest pickup truck.

    “Why would you say that?”

    “I’m sorry,” Sammy said. “I didn’t mean it. It was a joke. Let’s go back. Please.”

    “I’m gonna go.”

    And just like that, Tayla was gone. She found her way back to her friends, who went inside with her. He didn’t see her again that night. He wouldn’t see her for years.

    Sammy was alone, again. Forever.

    Valley: What Changed?

    How did the consequences of the Peak change things for the character? What new desires or problems arise as a result of the Peak and the Plunge? Why did that Climb and Peak matter? In the Valley, we take a quick breather before the next Climb. 

    Example:

    Sammy left the party without saying goodbye to anyone. When he got home, his dad was passed out on the couch. Sammy tip-toed upstairs, closed the door to his room, and started to cry.

    He missed Tayla already. He knew things would never be the same. She might never talk to him again. He couldn’t bear the thought of staying in this garbage town without her. She was never coming back, not for him at least. 

    Then it dawned on him: if she was never coming back, why should he stick around?

    Sammy had exactly $372.68 in the bank. That had to be enough for a one-way ticket somewhere. Somewhere far away from here.

    Every scene should have a Climb, Peak, Plunge, and Valley to make your story as Engaging as possible.

    Tying it all together

    In the Storycoaster, the action is made up of the events of the story, the tension is the Climb, and the Conflict is the track the Storycoaster runs on. The Conflict can change; as long as your story has conflict, it’s “on track.” 

    Using Cliffhangers

    Cliffhangers are a fantastic way to make your story Engaging, no matter the type of conflict or scale of the stakes.

    When we think of cliffhangers, we usually think of big life or death story moments, but that’s not the only way to do cliffhangers. Every chapter can (and ideally should!) end with a cliffhanger of some kind, but life-or-death cliffhangers every time can numb the reader to the story.

    Effective cliffhangers just mean cutting the chapter before you’re finished with the consequences of the Peak. Use the momentum of the Plunge to keep your reader glued to the story and clicking through to the next part. In our previous example, we end the scene knowing Sammy wants to leave and has the money to do so—the cliffhanger is where he’s going and what’s going to happen next. There’s an open question at the end of the scene, and we want to know more.

    Storycoaster - using cliffhangers

    Image description: The original labeled rollercoaster, with a big green X at the beginning of the downslope, immediately after the peak labeled “It Happens” 

    Here’s the ideal cliffhanger spot marked on the Storycoaster diagram, set just after the Peak. This is just one possible place to cut your chapter. Anywhere on the Plunge slope of consequences can work, it entirely depends on your story. Play around with it! Try cutting your chapters in different places and see what happens.

    Problems with cliffhangers

    Common cliffhanger problems usually result from either cutting the chapter in the wrong place or under-developed tension leading up to the Peak.

    Cutting too early

    If you cut the chapter too early, before enough conflict and tension have been established, the reader isn’t incentivized to keep reading. Don’t cut before the Peak! If the leads are having a big fight, don’t cut before the fight, cut right after someone has said something to irrevocably change the relationship, or make a big reveal. Then put the fallout in the next chapter. In our example, if we cut before Sammy confesses to Tayla, we’ve got a lot of buildup without enough payoff. Not enough has changed over the course of the scene to maintain momentum.

    Not enough climb

    If your scene doesn’t have enough conflict in it, if the characters aren’t doing or wanting anything, then there’s not enough rising tension. A common mistake is to throw in a twist or a reveal at the end of the chapter to keep the reader engaged, but without rising tension of some kind (even in a quiet interlude), this can feel disjointed. For example, if the lead detective is having a cozy morning at home and then someone calls with a revelation about the case and the chapter cuts, we’ve been denied the build-up of the Climb, and so there’s no urgency attached to this new revelation. You need the anticipation of the Climb to get to the thrill of the Plunge.

    Unrelated cliffhangers

    The leads are about to kiss, and then suddenly, one of them is hit by a car. The problem here is that the cliffhanger doesn’t flow from the scene you’ve established. The rising tension and conflict of the scene are derailed by an external factor that interrupts and redirects the story's conflict and focus. In our example, if Sammy was about to confess to Tayla but she was shot before he could get the words out, that sends the story in a completely different direction. It’s emotional and high-stakes, but it doesn’t actually give Sammy the emotional closure he (and the reader) was looking for in the build-up part of the scene. 

    This type of cliffhanger can work, but you can’t rely on it long-term because the audience will get tired of it very quickly because you keep asking them to switch focus. If you want to do one of these, limit to 1 per story.

    Long curving line Long curving line Long curving line