Conflict –> Tension

It’s an expectation that a story will be filled with conflict and tension, but what does it mean? What is the difference? How to outline it in a plan?

Let’s start with the big player in the game:


Conflict is the trouble caused by the things that get in the way of a goal. If the story goal is: will they/won’t they (for a romance), then all the obstacles and problems that threaten that goal are conflicts. The compelling motivation for the character to achieve the goal, to find resolution to the story question, means they’re willing to risk everything to achieve it because if nothing changes, their world isn’t worthwhile.

Right. That means that conflict comes because there is a strong motivation that compels the character to get/do/become or the consequences of inaction will ruin their lives.

If there are no consequences to the actions undertaken to achieve the goal, why do it? Why spend so much time pursuing something that doesn’t matter?

Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but we’re talking fiction, and fiction takes the truth and smacks it around a bit so the audience sees the path more clearly.

Now to the noose:


Tension is more covert. It hides in the bushes, waiting to test the motivations, to eavesdrop on secrets, to twist the search for the goal into something it wasn’t at the beginning. It has subtext, is the current beneath the surface, displays irony.

Basically, a plot is a story unfolding through the events, actions, reactions, strategic plans, tactics, etc., that move the character through the story toward the goal. These actions and events and movements demonstrate consequences (or spits of foreshadowing). A plot begins with a problem, an unfilled desire, an immediate or likely threat, an unanswered question. Whatever it is, it’s unresolved tension, an unfinished through-line in expectation of a resolution.

Tension, basically, is the risk underlying all the actions, reactions, scene outcomes that divert from the main story goal, that torture the journey from the beginning to the end.

When characters make choices (decisions to get/do/become) that become actions, it influences the storyline in a way that matters. It’s the significance of these small parts of the overall journey that induce tension, that ask the question of whether the hope is too high, the cost too heavy, the journey too long, the significance too wavering to keep going?

The tension is in these things. Will the character snap under the pressure? Will they make a wrong choice? Will they give up before they see the way through?

Conflicts are the knots in the rope, tension is the tangles that pull it too tight to carry the weight without a shift in the grip …

Is that how you see it? Is there more to conflict and tension that these basic interpretations? I’d love to hear about it.

16 thoughts on “Conflict –> Tension

  1. I’ve always found this fascinting. That there is a science to writing, totally over and above the story itself. My knowledge has been gained in a very ad-hoc way but I am 100% sure that it can be taught. Things exactkly like the conflict and tension terms that you use.

    For example I saw an analysis of Wizard of z once (a movie I can’t stand btw) in which I came away with sheer admiration, for the complexity of the story. Star Wars, too. I always like that but thought of it as simplistic, until I analysed it. It kinda makes you realise that these scriptwriters knew their stuff.

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    • A science, a craft, an art.
      Both the above movies are based on a specific archetype, the Hero’s Journey, but there are many more story archetypes, just as there are many character archetypes, and sometimes, they’re the same archetype!
      The only problem is that it takes a long time to learn all these things, and often, the learning is done on the job. At least, it becomes an obsession to learn all there is to learn in order to spin a good yarn that others can understand on an instinctual level.

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    • Maybe it’s the definition of what a story is and isn’t, at least to the writer. To me, a story is about conflict, and how the character deals with the issues that get in the way of the thing they want to get/do/become.
      If it isn’t that, it may be something else, a slice of life, a moment in time, but not a story by definition.
      In effect, a story is a long metaphor for a life-lesson.
      But that’s just my opinion, and I’m still learning.

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  2. I can’t think about these things while writing, only after the fact, when reading. If it’s my work in progress, I can make conscious changes to introduce or intensify conflict or tension. Can’t create and analyze at the same time.
    I do like the rope metaphor, though!

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    • The rope metaphor is courtesy of my nan, who always said life was a mess of knots and tangles, and only those who took the time to learn how to unravel and rewind/retwine(?) made it to wisdom.
      I never knew what she meant then, and I’m still thinking on it.

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    • Me too, Audrey. For me, conflict and tension arise out of the characters, and while I may have a vague idea of ‘the story’ before I start to write, I don’t get a clear idea of what’s what until I know the characters and how they’ll react to certain situations. Things have to make sense from that fundamental core or the story doesn’t work for me. Themes, foreshadowing, all that clever stuff happens /after/ I get the basics right. Assuming that I do. lol

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      • Yep, yep! Totally agree. For me, editing and tweaking are logical functions, imagining and drafting are creative functions, and I don’t like mixing the two unless…I’m blocked. That’s when I know I’ve written myself into a corner somewhere and need critical thinking to find the corner and get my out.

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      • And yet I fall into the other camp, and play and prewrite so much (beat sheets, char interviews, mini-synopses, etc.) until I know all that can happen, and to whom, and why, and where, and when, so when I start writing it flows out like fresh-churned butter on warm bread.
        So, you two do all that work after, and I do it before, but at some stage, we look at it with stern eyes and tap the red pencil on the desk …

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      • Aaaah…if I did even a fraction of that before I began writing I’d have no need to write. You see my first draft is me telling myself the story. It’s never for anyone else. All of that comes /after/.
        You’re spot on though about the stern eyes and the red pen. Ok, not so much the red pen, but definitely the stern eyes!

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    • It’s easier to create a vision of conflict as an obstacle of some type, something real. But tension is harder to use the senses on, and it requires an emotional context. Fear or expectation of fear is a good one.

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