Sunday, August 16, 2009

Writing Tension and Conflict

Two weeks ago I talked about plot being two dogs and one bone. What that means is plot is essentially conflict and conflict causes tension. It keeps the reader turning pages because they want to know what happens next. Afterall we all slow down at the scene of an accident because we want to know what happened or if we can help. Whether you are a plotter/outliner or a pantser (free style writer), you need to keep an eye toward tension and conflict in each scene.
There are many different kinds of conflict and tension. First there is the story conflict--you have this in every book of every genre. You have no story without an over arching conflict whether that is looking for a happy-ever-after, solving a murder, surviving a bad guy, winning an epic space battle, or making it out of the 5th grade. Each work of fiction begins with an over all story conflict. Make sure you have one. It's not enough to simply have a cool setting or funny characters. The reader wants to know what happens and why they care.
Next there is relationship conflict/tension. I'm not talking about only romance. Relationship tension works in all genres. Think Harry Potter and Professor Snape, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. A story really hums when you set up opposites, and pit them against each other, give them the same goal. If you find that you have a sagging or dull middle to your book, look at your character relationships and make things worse, ie. the bad guy is winning, your character just crossed a personal line they thought they'd never cross, someone they love gets hit by a bus, or thrown in jail and the character can't fully participate in helping. Tie them up in emotional knots or real knots and make them watch while others hurt/fall/struggle.
No where are we watching characters in day to day activities...getting dressed, making dinner, paying bills... unless it adds to emotional or physical conflict and tension. They have nothing appropriate to wear, their boss is coming to dinner and it burns or there is not enough money for all of the bills.
I recently read Jeffery Deaver's Roadside Crosses. Here are some examples of tension in this book: 1) overall story- someone is hurting people escalating to killing people and leaving a roadside cross announcing they are about to do so. (The roadside cross in advance of the crime gives the feeling of a ticking clock which hurries the plot along. The escalation of violence from kidnapping to torture to murder also speeds the plot-things are getting worse.) 2)conflict between heroine and her part time partner is two fold- they work well together, like and respect each other, there is sexual tension...and yet he is married. Plus he has his own cases to work. 3) heroine's mother is arrested for murder unrelated to the case and heroine can't devote all her time to helping her mother because more people are getting killed creating guilt and another strained relationship. 4) heroine's boss comes down on her for political heat he is getting on the case. 5) Another man enters the picture who helps with the case and shows romantic interest-but will her children approve? Is she willing to let go of her feelings for the married guy? 6) There are protesters-zealots ready to picket and mob anyone that opposes their views.
These are great examples of story question/conflicts/tensions large and small that create pacing, and keeps the reader turning the pages. These characters are feeling conflict at every turn. They are having a string of bad days...bad days that eventually work themselves out.
So, if you're stuck with a sagging middle or you don't know what happens next, think conflict, tension and problems great and small. Let the bad guy win. Let a deadline lapse. Let them fall for the wrong person. Let conflict carry you through.


Ann Victor said...

Thanks for the useful tips Nancy - the summary from "Roadside Crosses" was very interesting! It's always so difficult to fight the "sagging middle syndrome", so bringing in a new plot twist is something to consider (I like the suggestion that the character crosses the line and does something he never thought he would!)

Jessica said...

Awesome post Nancy! This is definitely something I hope to keep in mind as I write. I loved your examples from Deaver and now I wonder if I need to go pick up that book? LOL It sounds really good. :-)

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Ann,
Yes, crossing a line brings in all kinds of conflict-guilt, repercussions, uncertainty. Good stuff! LOL (to help sagging middles that is...)

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jessica,

Thanks for stopping by... I thought the book was a good example of the kinds of tension and conflict you, as a writer, can use. As a romance writer you hear a lot about sexual tension between h/h. I wanted to use an example outside of romance to bring a fresh point of view to the subject. (It's a good book, kind of creepy.) cheers~

Lynnette Labelle said...

Great post. A lot of people think conflict means a fight. That drives me nuts. LOL

If you happen to know a romance writer (or someone who writes adult fiction with romantic elements), send them to my blog. We have an opening in our critique group. Thanks.

Lynnette Labelle

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Lynette,

I agree. It drives me nuts, too, when people think conflict means a fight.

I'll pass on your request! Cheers!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Good examples of conflict - can't believe they all came from just one book! Like Jessica, I'm thinking I need to pick up that book.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane,

Yep, all those conflicts in one book. There was no time for a sagging middle. :)

Kathryn Magendie said...

I don't know how I did with conflict, etc - but, one of the things I hear repeatedly about tender graces is that people have a hard time putting it down - so, I guess I did something right! *smiling*

Great post!

Chelle-Belle said...

OOOH! I'm Sooo glad to have met you through Heather's Blog! This is some great advice! I'm just eating it up with a spoon! I'd write more, but I've just been inspired to work some more on my story!!!


Chelle }}i{{

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Kathryn, yep- you must have done something right! Glad you stopped by.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Chelle,

It was nice meeting you, too. Glad to see you here. I try to post craft and writing stuff here on Sundays.


Marilyn Brant said...

As always, excellent advice! I remember someone saying once that if you couldn't figure out what was supposed to happen next in a scene then there wasn't enough conflict... I need to keep reminding myself of that :).

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I just wanted to let you know I've awarded you the Superior Scribbler Award on my blog.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane! Thank you so much! cheers~

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