Writing Conflict into Fiction

Writing conflict into your fiction may sound as simple as adding tension. Yet conflict and tension are not the same thing.

Writing Tip for Today: How do conflict and tension differ, and how can we write better conflict into our stories?

Conflict v. Tension

 Tension keeps readers wondering what will happens next. It’s that sense of foreboding, that edge of the seat anticipation. When you write scenes, you build tension in your set-up and build-up phases. Conflict is the outcome of that tension build-up—the “what happens” that pays-off the tension for readers. Conflict is tension realized.

If you write tension that builds but you don’t provide the conflict, readers feel let down. No conflict or diluted conflict can come across like a birthday card from your rich uncle that you open and there’s no check inside. If you get readers excited or tense about what will happen next, the amount of tension must directly reflect the importance of the ensuing conflict.

Some writers approach their scenes from the conflict first and then work backwards to write in the appropriate building tension. However you write the conflict, be sure that it is worthy of the tension you’ve created just before the conflict occurs. You can build up readers to expect a good or bad thing and then use reversal to portray character disappointment. But don’t promise one thing to your readers and then deliver a dud.

Conflict Circles

All conflict is not the same. Types of conflict include everything from a physical confrontation to high psychological drama in a war of words. You can think of conflict as inner versus outer, or as a set of concentric rings where your protagonist is in the center.

Four main types of conflict include Person v. Self, Person v. Person, Person v. Nature and Person v. Society. In my experience, writers often write too much conflict from the innermost circle-Person v. Self–or they write too much conflict from a large outer circle—Person v. Nature or Society.

The best novels or memoirs include both these inner conflicts as well as the larger conflicts. If you concentrate too much on the inner conflict, you risk your scenes becoming static or ruminative. If you write only outer conflict, readers will have a harder time identifying with your character. The more you tie your character’s stakes and goals to those outer rings, the more universal your story becomes.

Balance inner and outer conflicts.

Conflict and Action

Conflict and action are two sides of the same coin. If you think of conflict as the way your character acts out the tension, your scenes come alive. Too much fiction relies heavily on dialogue with little or no real physical action. Get your characters moving, even if all they do is talk while they do a routine chore.

Why? Readers love movement. They shy away from long passages of memory or inner thought. Write with a balance of inner conflict that builds tension and outer conflict (action) that acts it out. If you only provide the tension, readers will feel cheated.

If you only provide endless conflict, readers will numb out and your story will be monotonous. Balance your scene writing with set-ups and build-ups of escalating tension, followed by active conflict that moves your story to the next bigger tension. If you do, you’ll write one of those page-turners that readers can’t put down.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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