Conflict Verses Tension
“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:
- Upping the stakes. For example, a police officer who is looking for the bad guy, and the bad guy kidnaps our character’s wife.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.