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.