Monday, February 28, 2011

Conflicting over conflict

There are those who say a genre book needs tension on every page. I think I agree with that, mostly. I do have a critique partner who soundly rejects that idea. For literary fiction, I'll agree with her, but for mysteries, thrillers, romance, speculative fiction, I think you gotta have it. If not on every page, at least in every scene.

Once things get going, I don't mind a let up and some relaxation. Let the heroine have a nice dinner with the guy, let the sleuth relax in the tub with candles and bubbles for an evening, let the spy find comfort in a soft, warm bed with a soft, warm body.

But not for more than a page or so!

How to write conflict and tension? The most obvious is to put obstacles in the way of the protagonist's goals. But that's already built in with your plot, most probably. What other kinds of conflict will keep the reader reading?

Your characters can have inner conflicts based either on the situations they're facing, or relationships with other characters. Or even aspects of their own personalities they're unhappy with and want to change--bad habits, addictions, disastrous relationships.

I love it when two or three characters have conflicting goals and something has to give. I also appreciate a built-in ticking bomb. Not literally a bomb, of course, although it could be, but a situation that must resolved within a given time period. This is the ultimate tension as the characters race against the clock to save the heir, rescue the prince, find the device that will end the world as we know it, etc.

Tension can even build when nothing overt is happening. This has to be set up, though. The reader has to know that something is brewing in the background while things are going smoothly. She has to know that the Sunday driver is heading toward a washed out bridge, just beyond the sharp bend. Or that the elderly man walking the Yorkie is about to pass the meth lab house where the three pit bulls have figured out how to get out of the chain link fence.  Or that the delicious apple pie ala mode has probably been poisoned.

Weather can create conflict for you, too. Impending storms, tornado sightings, earthquakes, floods. I like to use weather for mood, but also, occasionally, to put the characters into just a little more peril than they're already in.

What other good types of conflict have you read lately? Or maybe you've written them? 

“Picture of Captain Awata, Who Fights Furiously with His Celebrated Sword in the Assault on Magongcheng in the Pescadores”
This photographic image was published before December 31st 1956, or photographed before 1946 and not published for 10 years thereafter, under jurisdiction of the Government of Japan. Thus this photographic image is considered to be public domain according to article 23 of old copyright law of Japan and article 2 of supplemental provision of copyright law of Japan.


  1. I just noticed that the picture source requested me to include this link
    There are some more really cool prints there!

  2. good stuff, Kaye!

    Sylvia Dickey Smith

  3. Good post, Kaye. Conflict is the hardest element to master, IMO. I'm still working at it. So often it seems tossed in because the writer realized things were going to smoothly, and it jumps out at you. Your advice is good.
    And the picture is very nice

  4. Kaye, sorry I'm late getting to this interesting post. I think you are so right about tension, but also remember there are different kind of tensions. Suspenseful tension, sexual tension, among the many. So even if your characters are having a relaxing time, they should be advancing the plot. Wonderful post!

  5. Oh, I'm so glad you posted, Donnell. This is exactly what I'm looking for--things I left out! Thanks a bunch.

  6. I'm not sure about every page rule of thumb. I really relied a lot on Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure when I was, well, greener than I now am. I liked the high of ratcheting things up to a peak, then having a bit of a lull. But I agree with Donnell that varying the kinds of tension also provides a kind of a break--it doesn't necessarily have to be a night's sleep or a good meal. Great post!

  7. Good post! In the YA paranormal I'm working on right now the hard part is finding a moment for my characters to have a little LESS tension. They've been running from the bad guys for 2 weeks and in 3 more days, the protagonist's brother is going to be sacrificed.

    I've been solving this by making time for other tensions - between the protagonist and her sister, and now the protagonist noticing that her mom is getting romantically involved with the guy SHE has the hots for.

    The CRITTER Project and Naked Without A Pen

  8. That sounds like a good problem to have, Lemur. You don't have to worry about a saggy middle.