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Conflict vs. Tension

by Donna Schlachter

“I can’t believe you said that to me.” She would never have said that to him.

“Well, it’s true.” And sometimes the truth hurts.

“It wasn’t very nice.” She always tried to say nice things to people, even if they weren’t completely true.

“Wasn’t meant to be.” Doesn’t the Bible say to speak in truth?

“I’m not putting up with this.” If she’d known he was going to treat her like this, she’d never have married him.

The door slams.

“Fine,” he muttered. “Walk out, like you always do.” Just like my mother always walked out on my father and me.

Just about every writer’s conference I’ve attended tells us to have conflict on every page. Fine to say, more difficult to accomplish. The above passage, filled with head-hopping to make a point, is filled with conflict, every sentence venomous and filled with reactions to hurt.

While this passage has conflict, or disagreement or a failure to understand the other person’s point, it is not particularly tension.

Conflict happens when two characters confront each other.

Tension happens when two characters strive for opposite goals.

Conflict is fine in small doses, but this type of verbal sparring becomes tiresome. I recently watched a British historical drama, seasons one through three, one after the other. By the end of season three, I needed a break. One of the characters, a mother of five, had a hot temper, and she was forever arguing with somebody about her rights and her sacrifice for her family. I was tired of it.

Tension is more difficult to attain. We can increase tension by:

1. Upping the stakes. For example, a police officer who is looking for the bad guy, and the bad guy kidnaps our character’s wife.

2. Introducing another goal our character can’t have. For example, our police officer’s boss takes him off the case because he’s too emotionally involved and puts him on a case involving child pornography.

3. Adding to our character’s backstory. So, we find out our police officer was once addicted to kiddie porn but overcame the problem through the love and support of his wife. If he works on the pornography case he might get addicted again.

4. Dropping in something completely out of our character’s control. So, character follows the bad guy in his spare time, stows away on the bad guy’s plane, his wife tied up just feet from him, and the plane crashes, stranding the three of them in the mountains, and he finds out the bad guy is his wife’s half-brother, and out of love for his wife, wants to save the half-brother’s life.

I know, a convoluted story, but as an example, we have all the necessary elements for tension: a love interest, a career goal, a time bomb, a wounded hero, and a dangerous setting.

Tension keeps a reader turning pages well into the night. Conflict makes a reader toss the book aside if it’s overdone.

Donna Schlachter
Donna Schlachter is a storyteller at heart. She has completed eight full-length novels and is working on several projects at once. She writes stories from the heart, for the heart, and can be followed at: www.HiStoryThruTheAges.blogspot.com or www.HiStoryThruTheAges.com.

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3 Responses to Conflict vs. Tension

  1. Ron Estrada says:

    I was just complaining this week about a series I watch called Southland (not Christian at all, but great police procedure). One of the cops, Sammy, has been in an ongoing war with his ex-wife for two or three seasons now. All he does is complain about her. In an attempt to add confflict (as if more is needed in South Central L.A.), the writers are boring us to death with this never-ending fight between Sammy and his ex. It’s a good lesson for us. Conflict for the sake of conflict is not always helpful.

  2. Rachel Hauck says:

    You’re right. Tension is key. You can have a pleasant scene with underlying tension.

    Conflict is when two people want opposite goals. Tension is when the characters emotionally cannot get what they want.

    A couple breaking up can be cordial but full of tension. On the other hand, a couple breaking up can be all conflict with no real tension just noise on the page.

    Or a police raid scene can have conflict but no tension.

    Conflict is external. Not always but most likely. Tension is more internal.

    Okay I’m rambling, thinking out loud. GREAT post Donna! Good examples.

    Rachel

  3. What is a page-turner? In my opinion, it doesn’t need to be a thriller. Some books are, but not all. Jan Karon’s Mitford series were page-turners for me. They were so because I liked being with the people and in the town. I wanted to stay there so I kept reading. Looking at the sales for those books, I seem to have not been the only person who enjoyed the characters and the town.

    I’m glad you looked at this conflict vs. tension component. You are so right, Donna. But I think we need to go further. We need to expand our thinking about what makes a book captivating. People want and need different kinds of novels. They need and want stories to be told in a variety of ways.