Conflict, suspense, and tension

(Okay, let’s just pretend it’s Friday and I’m doing my weekly update on the subject that came up several weeks ago)

(The pic comes from Fandango and his Flash Fiction Challenge, except I’m not writing fiction — or am I?)

photo from Nicolae_Balt at


See that balloon?

The conflict comes from the character who knows enough about balloons to be fearful, but they have no choice. If they don’t get in the balloon for the boss (who organised the outing), or the friend (who paid for it as a gift and wants the character to see the world from a different perspective), or simply for a dare (what trouble comes when showing off to out-of-towners after a couple of drinks), what happens? It’s always about the Stakes.

The problems the main character considers:

It goes high off the ground, doesn’t steer, and if something goes wrong – a storm, a sudden change in weather, wind, powerlines, ocean breezes, turbulence from traffic … all these things create tension with the person who’s about to go up in one for the first time, especially if they’re afraid of heights (maybe too embarrassed to admit it), or did it on a dare, or some other reason.

The conflict is internal to the passenger – because you don’t want it to be in the operator, do you? Oh, unless he’s a crook on the run and the only way to get out of the immediate vicinity is to hide the body of the operator and take in the guests until he can get away … [possibilities as a story there!]. Stakes.

This is why it’s better when it’s two people creating conflict. The internal (introspection) is interesting, but not enough. The external is something the reader can see, feel, taste, empathise with, feel the differences between two desires. The two characters have opposing desires, their stakes are personal, and only one will come out of it. Who wants what more, and why?

Which creates suspense.

Suspense: this is what tightens the chest of the reader. It forces a question: What will the character do to survive when something happens?

The reader knows what both characters want, and if they feel for the passenger (empathy), they are suspended between fear and hope. What will happen, they ask? How can I stop reading until I know the answer? Who will survive? How can they win/get out of this?

The suspense is in the reader as they understand what’s going on that the main character doesn’t. The reader knows about the fear of heights, the fear of losing face (which the main character shares with them through the internalisation), but the reader also knows the fake operator is a dangerous man who’s willing to kill to get far from the law on his butt.


it’s the clash between two incompatible desires, where one or both exercise their will, make a choice. It’s about the stakes of the conflict: death by one of the PIES (Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, Spiritual — yes, I made that up, but it works).

Passenger’s conflict: It’s a balloon, there’s no control, and the MC is afraid of heights (but more afraid of losing face).

Crooks conflict: He needs to get off the roads, out of town, and far, far, away – and the only option is the balloon, but he’s not quick enough to cast free before the passenger turns up. He has to play out the hand he’s got.

The reader knows how desperate the crook is, how afraid the passenger is, and the reader is the one with fear. The heartbeat increases, the page turns blur …

Tension: This is what underlies it all. Waiting for it to happen. Fears hidden. The possibility of death that arises from conflict and the actions taken (or not) to avoid death (stakes), and the ongoing tension created by the changes in the moment with each action and reaction and outcomes that need further actions. Tension is about choices, options, risks – why does the character need to do this? What do they lose if they don’t act? How important are all those other things when it comes down to the nitty-gritty?

Tension is the taut wire of continuing the progression toward some form of resolution of the immediate problem, and the question – will it work? What happens if …? Why does it matter?

I know, it’s a basic outline of something that’s almost indefinable. But it’s an emotional thing. Conflict is the external versus the internal, it’s what the reader sees and feels about the people in the story. Tension comes from every choice made and the underlying suspense comes from the reader knowing that one of those choices will end badly.

That’s how I help myself get through the moments of a story, so how do you define Conflict, Suspense, Tension?

Yes, still editing (at least one more to go). I’ve changed the publication date, though, so I can enter it into a competition (due date 1 July – wish me good travels).

See you next week.

11 thoughts on “Conflict, suspense, and tension

    • Nothing is innocuous unless someone’s worked damned hard to make it appear that way – not in fiction, anyway. I can’t say anything about real life – not sure what it is these days!

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