Conflict and Tension: the Engine of Story

Guest Blog by C.R. Langille

C.R.Langille

C.R. Langille spent many a Saturday afternoon watching monster movies with his mother. It wasn’t long before he started crafting nightmares to share with his readers. An avid hunter and amateur survivalist, C.R. Langille incorporates the Utah outdoors in many of his tales. He is the Organizer for the Utah Regional Chapter of the Horror Writer’s Association, and received his MFA: Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University.
www.crlangille.com
https://www.facebook.com/crlangillewriter
Twitter: @CRLangille


 

As writers something we always want to hear from our readers is, “I couldn’t put the book down.” How can we achieve this magical feat? We achieve this by creating tension and conflict in our writing. James Scott Bell said, “Conflict has long been recognized as the engine of story. Without conflict there is no drama. Without drama there is no interest. Without interest there is no reader. And no writing career.” In other words, conflict drives the whole machine. It’s the horsepower that’s going to get your reader from chapter one, all the way to climax.

Conflict and tension, if done well, will keep your reader invested in each and every page of your book. It will keep them glued to every chapter, hanging on each paragraph, and wanting to devour every sentence. So how do we do this? Conflict alone won’t be that engaging to the reader; it has to have what’s called emotional familiarity.

Karl Iglesias said, “Bottom line, it doesn’t matter who or what you write about as long as your characters experience emotions we understand and relate to.” Even if you’re writing a fantasy epic about mushroom people, readers need to be able to relate on an emotional level to those mushrooms. We do this by creating familiar scenarios or emotions such as love, hate, anger, revenge etc. Feel free to make the race found in your space opera as unique as can be, but you need to have some sort of familiar traits that the reader can relate to, otherwise it may just fall flat.

Along with conflict, your piece should have ample amounts of tension or what I like to call, micro-tension. Micro-tension is the small hook that drags your reader through each page. It’s the slow build to action, the unanswered questions, and the cliff-hangers. I love to end chapters or scenes with cliff-hangers because the reader will want to keep reading instead of put the book down. Try to avoid ending chapters with your character going to sleep or resolving a problem. That’s a perfect stopping point for the reader to call it a night and get some shut-eye themselves. Below is a perfect example of micro-tension:

Doug reached for the door handle, then thought better of it and stooped to peer through the opening. What he saw was dismaying. The bench seat was covered with mud; so were the dashboard and the steering wheel. Dark goo dripped from the old-fashioned knobs of the radio, and on the wheel were prints that didn’t look exactly as if hands had made them. The palm prints were awfully big, for one thing, but the finger marks were as narrow as pencils. (Mile 81—by Stephen King)

What worked with this piece? Let me break it down.

Doug reached for the door handle, then thought better of it and stooped to peer through the opening. (As a reader, I want to know why he stopped reaching for the handle, and I also want to know what he saw through the opening. King has already created the first hook.) What he saw was dismaying. (What did he see? I want to know. Why was it dismaying?) The bench seat was covered with mud; so were the dashboard and the steering wheel. Dark goo dripped from the old-fashioned knobs of the radio, and on the wheel were prints that didn’t look exactly as if hands had made them. (Holy crap! Why is the car in such a state, and even more concerning, what made the prints on the wheel? I need to know more!) The palm prints were awfully big, for one thing, but the finger marks were as narrow as pencils. (Now it’s settled, while we may not want to know what made the marks, we need to know as a reader. Great use of micro-tension.) (Mile 81—by Stephen King)

Following the King bandwagon, there is a mini-series on Youtube based off a Stephen King short story entitled “N”. I highly recommend watching all 25 episodes. They aren’t that long, and they are wonderful examples of conflict and tension.

If you use conflict and tension properly, you will write a story that will keep your readers hooked. Keep the conflict familiar on the emotional level so your reader can connect to what’s going on. Use small hooks to drag your reader along paragraph by paragraph, page by page. Keep them wanting to know more, what’s going on, and what’s going to happen next. It’s just as easy as that (as if it were that easy). As Bell said, conflict is the engine of the story. Don’t let your engine die.

Recommended Reading:
Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias
Elements of Fiction Writing—Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell

Recommended Viewing:
“N” by Stephen King

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.

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