Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tension and Conflict Part 2 - The Nature of Conflict

While tension is the emotion of a novel, conflict is the power. It drives the story forward and causes the reader to hang on and go with the ride. Without conflict the scenes would be a slow walk through a park. Who cares?

Yet conflict has some “need to” factors. An argument over what color to paint a wall or whether the evening will be spent watching a good movie or a sports event is a common event in many households, but it doesn’t fit the definition of conflict in fiction. Many new writers think an argument between two people is what it takes, and though an argument that severs their relationship or causes one character to do something drastic is a form of conflict, arguments are not the ultimate.

So what is the nature of conflict? What is it that conflict needs to be in fiction?

Make a difference to the plot. The conflict must matter to the character so that the final solution will make a difference in the character’s life. The conflict must be worth the prize, meaning the solution to the conflict must be important to the character. Thinking of the movie or sport night, you can see in the long run that doesn’t make one bit of difference to a character reaching a goal.

Must have a worthy opponent. If the conflict is involves another person, the person must be strong and clever. A dumb criminal is easily caught, but a smart one creates a dynamic story. As the main character expands his paths to undo the opponent, the opponent needs to also change and grow with the main character to make the fight worthwhile.

Must connect with the reader. The conflict needs to be something in which a reader can relate. They can see the danger of the situation to the characters and to the even the world in a thriller. They must understand, and better yet the conflict makes even more impact if it’s something that has happened to them. This includes things like betrayal, fear, abuse, doubts, and internal struggles that many people experience.

Must produce emotion. Emotion is the reaction to conflict and it is what creates tension. Conflict without tension is flat. This is the argument over a white or chocolate cake. A reader doesn’t care. They aren’t affected if a married woman comments on an attractive man, but if the woman finds herself dreaming of the man and looking forward to seeing him again, emotion is involved and thus tension since it signals a deeper conflict.

Tests the character. Conflict that is powerful pushes a character to his limits. It forces him to demonstrate strengths & abilities he never realized he had, and it signals growth which is a must in good fiction. Readers want to see the character’s change and make progress in their lives.

Gain causes loss. When the conflict is between people, someone wins and someone loses. Sometimes this could be an equally important character in the novel, and this creates another conflict. But conflict can happen inside one person. If the character wants to be successful and famous, he will lose privacy and freedom. It goes with the gain. Along the same idea, sometimes to reach one goal, a character must lose another. To obtain the job promotion to better himself, he must move and lose connection with his family who needs him.

If you can include these qualities in your conflict, they will be powerful and suited to a strong fiction novel that relates to the reader, provides them with excitement and draws on their emotions.


Teri Dawn Smith said...

Great post! So helpful to distinguish between tension and conflict.

Donald Maass called tension "warring emotions".

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks so much. It's nice to know you found it helpful. I did this as a workshop for ACFW and decided it would make a great blog series.


Sylvia Hubbard said...



i'm so geeked i actually sat down and read this article, Gail!

of course I posted part of it on MWN to lead over here. I hope they read it!!

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Glad you enjoyed the article, Sylva. I'm learning so many new approaches to things I already do. I love the screenwriting tips I've received lately.