Since the first part of this series back in June, we’ve come to understand that a compelling narrative requires cause and effect. But it needs something else as well: conflict and tension. It all comes back to the same question with which we started: What happens next?
It’s a question writers of fiction ask themselves many times as they construct a plot and a question that becomes easier to answer once we understand the principle of cause and effect. As a book editor, I tell my clients that what happens next should always be in some respect the effect of what happened before.
But, “What happens next?” is also the question we want our readers to ask. In fact, we need them to do so. If readers aren’t invested in finding out what happens next, then they have no reason to keep reading. And it’s conflict and tension that causes them to ask. If the inevitability of cause and effect is what provides a story its momentum, then it’s the questions of conflict and tension that provide it its energy.
How does that work? And how do conflict and tension relate to narrative structure?
These are the questions we’ll answer in the fourth and final installment of our exploration of cause and effect.
[Missed the first part of this series? Start here.]
Defining Conflict and Tension
We know we need conflict and tension in a story. But where do conflict and tension come from?
In its simplest state, a story is about a character trying to achieve something they want and/or need. Conflict, then, emerges from obstacles that stand in the way of what a character wants or needs. Tension emerges from the consequences of failing to achieve those wants and needs.
That sounds pretty straightforward. But it’s impossible to understate how important these ideas are in a compelling narrative. If there are no obstacles in the way of a character achieving what they want and need, then readers have no reason to ask“What happens next?” because the answer is never in doubt. Throughout this series, we’ve been imagining narrative as a domino rally. Without obstacles, that rally becomes a small handful of dominos in a straight line. There’s no question tipping the first will bring down the last, and there’s no question as to how, so why even bother watching?
As for tension, well, that’s where we really see how conflict and tension factor into cause and effect.
Imagine a deep pass in a football game. Imagine that build of energy you feel as the ball makes its way to the receiver’s fingertips, and the massive collective letdown should it bounce right off and onto the field. Or consider instead the hours and minutes leading up the results of a close election, or the combination of exhaustion and determination in the final lap of a marathon for which you’ve spent months training.
Or consider the domino rally. Imagine thousands of fallen dominos over the course of minutes, and the enormity of the disappointment that would come from one misplaced piece merely a few dozen dominos from the end.
The nearer the victory—the higher the climb—the farther the fall. That’s the power of tension.
Tension is not a static force. Tension rises, just as the action does through most of a novel following the inciting incident. But of course, when it comes to narrative as opposed to these other real-world examples, tension doesn’t rise on its own. It’s your role as the author to ensure that the potential for failure—the stakes—rise steadily as the action continues.
The same is true of conflict. As you climb higher, not only is the fall farther but ideally, the climb itself is more difficult. The air is thinner. The weather is worse. The obstacles, in other words, are greater.
So how do you do this? By internalizing the idea that plot beats—those same beats that follow the principle of cause and effect, each the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows—also cause meaningful changes in our conflict and tension.
Organic Conflict vs. Forced Conflict
In my work as a professional book editor, it’s common to encounter manuscripts with unconvincing conflict and tension. Often authors are aware of the problem because you can feel when your story lacks the energy you feel it should have. And the way they typically try to resolve this is to add in new sources of conflict.
New conflict can be all kinds of things. Suddenly there’s a meteor. Suddenly the protagonist’s best friend has cancer. Suddenly the company is facing a hostile takeover.
What do these potential conflicts have in common? Mainly, the word suddenly. Odds are a sudden, out-of-nowhere conflict has little connection to the chain of cause and effect you’ve been building. It’s just as we discussed with plot beats in general: You can’t just throw new events—new conflict—into the novel. You need to think about what happens next—what conflict and tension might emerge organically, and logically, from what you’ve already established.
Did your character commit a crime? Well, maybe she left a clue. Maybe she has to commit a worse crime to cover it up. The need to commit another crime is an obstacle in the way of putting this whole mess behind her. That’s rising conflict. The act of committing it makes the consequences even greater if she’s caught. That’s rising tension. And both are natural effects of the crime and narrative that precede them.
So, conflict and tension must be organic. Conflict and tension also must be progressive. And conflict and tension that rise right alongside your action all the way to the climax make for a seriously compelling manuscript. With so much standing in the way of our characters’ goals, and so far to fall if they fail, readers have no choice but to wonder, “What happens next?”
What Happens Next?
This brings to an end our exploration of cause and effect—but if you’re working on a story now, for you, it may be only the beginning. What happens next is to plan out your writing or revision process based upon the principle of cause and effect. Take the time to be sure you know your inciting incident, and you know your climax, and you know how cause and effect guide you from one to the other. Be sure conflict and tension develop the same way.
Some parts of your plan or outline will change in the course of the writing and revision processes. It always does. But if you internalize the concept of cause and effect, you can be sure that all your changes are undertaken in the service of a stronger, better-structured narrative. And you’ll see the importance of that in the terrific next draft that results.
As for what happens next immediately, well, think about conflict and tension in the story you’re writing now. What would be an organic way to make things much, much worse for your characters? Let me know in the Comments section below!