Monday, November 10, 2014

Creating Tension

We've all seen those graphics of the many challenges a character can face in a novel. There's Character vs. Character, Character vs. Nature, Character vs. Society, Character vs. get the point.

These are all also places of tension, and it's your job as the author to decide which should be the strongest; where do you want the most tension in your novel? Odds are you're going to be playing off of all of them, but there should be one or two at the very top of your list as the main challenge that a character has to face.

Note how I said: odds are you're going to be playing off of all of them. This is very important.

Here's the deal: if there's only one source of tension in your entire novel, it's going to get kind of boring. I'm not sorry, somebody had to say it. You can't have your character try to stick to the "the man" and get along peachy with every person they interact with. Better, yet, you can't have your character try to stick it to "the man" and not even be conflicted about it. Because then he/she would be a really boring character and conflict is everything.

If you ever remember one thing that I say on this spiffy blog of mine, it's that: Conflict. Is. Everything. Because novels don't really exist without conflict. And conflict creates tension. Which brings me back to today's point.

Mix up your conflict. There is no such thing as a character in a novel who gets along with everything and everyone. The more conflict you have, and the more diverse that conflict is, the more likely you'll have some twist and turns in your novel that'll defy the expectations in your reader and leave them going, "Holy sh*t!"

So get your character in trouble with the police. Have them mouth-off to the deadliest street gang in town. Lock them in an elevator with that one person they've always hated. Whip up a snow storm at the same time they have to use a Smart Car to chase down that thief.

It's exciting, it gets the reader's blood pumping, and it's probably fun for you, as the writer, as well. I mean, hey, you get to make your reader as miserable as possible. What better way to let out all that anger and stress you hold in from the real world?

However, there's also a contrary point to creating tension. Something else to consider is where to not create tension. That's right, I just threw you a curve ball.

Something that can be fun and interesting to do is to get your character to make friends in unlikely places. For some reason, they make that mob boss laugh, and look at that they've just made a new friend. That hurricane that just blew in? Well, it made sure that murderer didn't get anywhere and, hey, they get a break from work which means they can rest up.

Play with it. Try writing a scene twice: once with conflict between the character and something else, and once without. See which works better. In my WIP, the relationship between two characters was originally supposed to be friendly; in the first draft it was rather coarse, though. So when I wrote it again, I tried making them be nice to each other and it just didn't work out. So conflict it is. In this case, it's not a huge play in the game: things just get snappy, but they're both on the same team. Contrariwise, the relationship between one of those characters and somebody else tends to get physically violent whenever they're around each other, and they're on the same team, too.

Personally, I practically feed off of character vs. character conflict more than anything else. Second to that is character vs. self, and third is character vs. society.

What's your favorite kind of conflict?

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Conflict in a novel is everything, and conflict creates tension. Use it, and use it well via @Rae_Slater (Click to Tweet)


  1. I just realized that in "the Princess" all the tension is self-imposed by the protagonists, and that effectively none are in conflict with one another.

    I hadn't thought of this until I read this piece.


    1. I can actually see that (thinking back on it). I mean, to be fair, short stories are just that: short. Limited characters, and limited time to create conflict that makes sense. Although, I have to admit: I kept expecting Magnus to die (I have a really violent mind). Because there really wasn't any consequences for anyone's actions, you know?

      *shrugs* My thoughts.

    2. Hmmm, well, it's really a love story, a princess fairy tale. Í can't be killing off the groom!

      Thank you for the feedback.

      Now, I'm trying to think of a story I wrote that would appeal to your desire for blood...

      There's killing in Jungle. And in Tehran, and in Swordsman. For gruesome, Treblinka, but I don't think you should enjoy that.

    3. I thought about this all day (not even kidding). Here's my theory about The Princess: it's a kind of literary short story masquerading as a fairy tale. I mean, in my opinion it's mostly about the writing process: the author sits down and writes what the "muse" brings to him. He's brought a tale in which there's a happy ending (yeah, I just have a really violent mind XD), then that's what he writes. You have a frame narrative: a story inside a story, and the outside story is the one acting as the "real" story; so there's a potential for conflict that carries out not physically in the author's world, but mentally, inside the world of his story.

      *takes breath*

      Does that make sense? Also, I shall check out some of those stories; The Princess was good, so I'm stoked to see what else you have up your sleeve!

    4. Ah, all day? mmm.

      I like your take on that. I also like that the princess sees things in her dreams, and I, as the author, relate a dream as well. There's a bridging of sorts going on there.

      The frame with the muse is real too. I described as I saw it in my mind's eye.

      After I wrote the story, I thought about it in those terms: it's really about accepting one's role. She gets married, in the end, as was expected, and she is not just happy about it, but very happy :)

      Don't read The desert is a harsh mistress unless you're feeling romantic, or the earliest poem :)

      Thank you for the kind words.