In our series on the nature of cause and effect, we discussed the importance of writing compelling conflict and utilizing techniques that increase tension. We know that conflict and tension provide the energy in a narrative by establishing the obstacles and consequences that give readers cause to wonder, “What happens next?” This is the question that keeps them turning pages.
But what makes conflict and tension convincing and credible? And what prevents it from being so?
Like so much in writing, generating conflict and increasing tension relies on the principle of
(Missed the first post in this series? Start here.)
To Increase Tension, Show Real Problems
You say your protagonist is an alcoholic. But what if we never see her drink?
Or maybe he has terrible asthma that may well kill him if he loses his inhaler. But what if we never see him exercising caution or struggling to breathe?
In my work as a book editor, I’ve seen both of these scenarios. Both come from writers who know that a compelling manuscript requires conflict and tension, and that conflict and tension emerge frequently from a well-defined character with well-defined flaws. But for these obstacles and consequences to be convincing, they need to cause and relate to real problems faced by our characters.
Maybe our alcoholic relapses one night, then misses work the next day and loses her job. Maybe she needed her paycheck from that job to pay the rent, and now she has to find another way to pay it. In this scenario, the author has successfully shown her protagonist’s alcoholism obstructing her efforts to achieve her wants and needs, and we can see in the loss of her job a legitimate consequence. Because we see the obstacles and consequences, and because we ask “What happens next?,” our conflict convinces and our tension increases.
But if she never has a drink at all through the entire story, or even thinks about drinking, then relapse is never a potential consequence. Her drinking is not a real obstacle. It doesn’t give us reason to wonder what happens next. It doesn’t provide conflict or increase tension.
So we can’t rely on the statement that obstacles and consequences exist. Only when they factor into the story—only when they’re shown versus told—are they credible to readers.
To Increase Tension, the Protagonist Must Lose
Okay, so we need to show obstacles and consequences to generate convincing conflict and increase tension. But another aspect of showing conflict and increasing tension is establishing obstacles that are genuinely difficult to overcome.
For example, a cabal of well-trained assassins hunting down our protagonist should absolutely be a convincing source of conflict and tension. But if the protagonist dispatches with the assassins easily every time they appear, then takes a well-earned nap, readers aren’t going to feel the danger. The same applies to a powerful politician whose constant missteps mean our protagonists always have the edge on him.
In either scenario, the author is indeed showing versus telling our intended source of conflict and tension. But what’s really being shown is that the obstacles in question aren’t that big a deal.
Though it’s not true of all stories—certainly not tragedies—most often, the protagonist wins in the end. But the end is a long way away. Until we get there, we need to see obstacles and antagonists that threaten to get the better of her—and sometimes do. The protagonist loses until, in the end, she doesn’t. And if that’s what readers see, then it means the author is showing conflict—and compelling conflict at that.
Don’t Underestimate Reaction
But some sources of conflict and tension benefit from not being shown. Think about the monster in a horror movie. Sometimes you don’t see the monster until nearly the end of the film—if at all.
In that scenario, though, while you may not see the monster, you do see the way characters respond to the monster. You see their fear, and the extreme lengths to which they go to survive. And it’s through our characters’ reactions to our unseen obstacle—and, ideally, some examples of very real consequences faced by those who have encountered that obstacle—that we experience conflict and increase tension.
This isn’t true only of scary movies. In fact, reaction is crucial to readers’ understanding of conflict and tension. If a woman disappears under mysterious circumstances, but her best friend, our protagonist, is focused instead on getting ready for a date on Tuesday, then the impression we’re left with is that the disappearance of the friend isn’t especially important. If the protagonist doesn’t care, why should we? Or consider a woman who gets stuck in traffic and misses the job interview of a lifetime. How significant a setback can it be if she doesn’t get angry or frustrated or in any way upset?
It comes back to character. We only encounter real obstacles and real consequences if those obstacles and consequences relate to things a character wants and needs. Our alcoholic, for example, really needed that paycheck to pay her rent. But if she just shrugs it off and goes about her life, naturally readers will feel she didn’t really need the money after all. When characters don’t react to supposed obstacles and consequences, it conveys that they don’t actually want or need to find their best friend, or get that job, or do whatever else they’re supposed to care about doing.
In other words, if wants and needs are told, but not convincingly shown, we lose out once again on conflict and fail to increase tension, which results in an unengaging story that readers easily can, and likely will, put down.
So if you’re struggling to transform your hypothetical conflict and tension into the real deal, consider that golden rule of writing. Convey how the problems you craft affect the life of your protagonist. Let them fail. And show how they react to failing. Give readers a reason—in fact, show them a reason—to ask, again and again, just what might happen next.
What steps do you take to increase tension and ensure your readers experience compelling conflict? Let us know in the comments below!
(Don’t miss the next post in this series! Click here to keep reading about how telling something that is already clearly shown can lead to overwriting.)
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.