Thursday, December 17, 2009

Conflict In Every Line

Camy here! I wanted to talk about conflict today, because we all could use more conflict in our lives, right? Especially now that it’s December and Christmas is around the corner?

(Breathe ... breathe ... I’m just kidding! I mean, I’m kidding about us needing more conflict in our lives, not about Christmas being around the corner. And if you’ve still got your head stuck in the sand of denial about Christmas—you have only nine days left, sugar. Get cracking.)

Anyway, one of the best things I picked up from a Donald Maass seminar was his injunction to add tension to every sentence on the page.

Yes, you read that right. Every sentence.

Okay, real world application: I typically can’t add tension in every single sentence, but I definitely try to add tension in every paragraph. And I aim for tension in every sentence as much as I possibly can.

Why do we need more tension and conflict? Because the reality is that conflict is what keeps a reader reading. If things are all hunky dory and perfect, the book—and the writing—is boring.

Conflict and emotion engage a reader’s attention. While we don’t like conflict in real life, in fiction, we thrive on it. Yes, we’re just a little sick and twisted that way.

Consider this before and after example. I’m going to use part of a “lost scene” from Deadly Intent. It’s a date scene I cut out entirely because it reduced the tension (LOL) of the pacing, plus if a woman has just seen a dead body, would she really go out to lunch with the dead woman’s ex-husband and be all ga-ga over him? Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking. Neither did my critique partners, who told me to nix the scene. Here’s a before and after shot.

Before tension is added to every paragraph:

Wow, she was having lunch with Dr. Devon Knightley. How cool!

“Are you sure this restaurant is okay with you?” Devon peered at her over the top of his menu.

“Yes, of course.”

“You seem … nervous.” Devon crowned her with a smile dreamier than McDreamy. “I hope it’s not because of me.”

“Of course not.” Maybe he’d ask her for her number this time. Last time they’d met, he hadn’t, but now that he was spending some time with her, maybe he’d become more interested. She couldn’t believe he was taking her out instead of her more beautiful sisters. “When Rachel and Aunt Becca both said they couldn’t go to lunch, it was really nice of you to insist on taking just me.”

He winked at Naomi. “How could I disappoint Becca when she’d worked so hard?”

Well, Aunt Becca had been rather obvious in trying to play matchmaker. Embarrassment heated her neck and she looked at her menu.

Okay, I admit, I—ahem—doctored it a little to show even less tension. But you get the picture, right?

Here’s the scene after tension is added to every paragraph (and several extra sentences are added, too). I put the tension in each paragraph in red font. You can see that some of the original version already did have some tension, and I ended up adding tension to almost every sentence:

Lunch had so not been a good idea.

Aside from the fact Naomi couldn’t scrub Jessica’s waxen face from the backs of her eyelids, Aunt Becca had embarrassed her worse than when she’d crashed Naomi’s eight-grade sleepover.

“Are you sure this restaurant is okay with you?” Devon peered at her over the top of his menu with wary eyes.

“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“You’ve picked the stitched seam out of your menu.”

Naomi looked down. A gold-colored thread hung bedraggled from the edge of the leather menu, where the folded-over edge cracked open. “I did that?”

“You seem … nervous.” Devon crowned her with a smile dreamier than McDreamy. “I hope it’s not because of me.”

“Of course not,” she snapped. This was just like the last time they’d met. He’d be charming and fun, and in the end, it wouldn’t mean a thing. Or maybe he’d ask her for Rachel’s number—most of the men who cosied up to her were doing so because they lacked the backbone to approach Rachel themselves. Something about being so drop-dead-gorgeous made men lose their nerve. Stop griping. You can’t expect anything more when you’re the plain sister. “You know, when Rachel and Aunt Becca both said they couldn’t go, you didn’t have to insist on taking me to lunch.”

He winkedwinked!at Naomi. “How could I disappoint Becca when she’d worked so hard?”

He’d seen through Aunt Becca’s excuses. She’d been hoping they weren’t really as flimsy as they sounded to her ears. Ugh, this had gone from horrible to a-step-above-death. Naomi snapped her menu up to hide her face.

Now, the type of tension you add to your sentences will probably be different, depending on your writing style and genre. I tend to add more humorous tension by default—it’s just my personality—and I have to work hard to make my tension and conflict more suspenseful for my romantic suspense novels for Steeple Hill.

But do try to add more tension and conflict to every sentence, if you can, and at the very least, every paragraph. It really adds to reader interest.

Anybody want to try with some before and after shots of their own writing? Feel free to post it in the comments!

Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. Her novels Single Sashimi and Deadly Intent are out now. She runs the Story Sensei critique service, is a staff worker for her church youth group, and leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels every week and ponders frivolous things. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for monthly giveaways!


  1. I've started the coffee pot and also set out a pretty Royal Albert teapot of Irish Breakfast tea with milk and honey for myself. And I'll drink the whole pot if no one tries to take some wants any.

    Anyone want to try adding more tension to an existing piece of writing? Post the before and after! Don't be shy!


  2. Ah...

    Coffee and Camy. Two of my favorite "C" words. :)

    Of course there's Christ and cash, and those are favorites as well, but while I'm long on one (Go, God!!!) and a touch short on the other (but not as short as last year, LOL), I always welcome a Camster crusade and fresh coffee.

    I salute tension, especially fictional, and Captain Caffeine...

    And the Camster.

    I brought frosted sugar cookies, freshly baked and sprinkled. One should always opt for sprinkles, the more the merrier.

    Cookies for breakfast. Perfect!


  3. Hi, Camy! When I judge contests, the lack of tension is almost always a big problem with the entries. Often the first few scenes involve the heroine rather blithely going through her routine, meeting the hero, who's a nice guy, but through some minor misunderstanding, she decides (unreasonably) that she doesn't like him. So you have lack of tension and tension that's not believable. Both are bad.

    Me, I've had to cut a lot of scenes from an early manuscript. Not enough tension in them, and I realized they weren't necessary to the plot anyway.

    Tension can be subtle. Sometimes the best forms of tension are embedded in the "situation" of the story. For instance, two people are attracted to each other, but he's betrothed to someone else (tension fact #1), he's too honorable to break his betrothal (tension fact #2), the heroine is definitely not in his social class and she's very conscious of that (tension fact #3). With all those story points, you can put those two characters together and have natural tension oozing from every sentence. The story situation makes it easy. That kind of tension is fun to write!

    In another of my books, (I write romance, can you tell?) the tension comes from the fact that the heroine hates the town she's in, wants out, doesn't want to get married because she wants to go back to her big city and get back to college. The fact that the hero is the small town's doctor and has always lived there makes her contemptuous of him, and the fact that she's attracted to him makes her angry with both him and herself.

    Mary does this very well. She pairs a heroine who's been abused by the father who adopted her and several other children, with a hero who's adopted a bunch of children and now wants to adopt her sister. She naturally suspects that he's a terrible man like the man who adopted her! Instant, natural tension every time they're in the same scene together.

    And I like the second version of your scene with Dr. Dreamy. It has me thinking he's the villain. Am I right?

  4. I want some of your tea!

    Great article on conflict, Camster. I loved the Maass seminar too and remember being stunned about the tension-in-every-sentence statement.

    But I immediately went and added more and it really made a difference. I don't have an example to share but I loved your example.


  5. Camy, I was amazed to see you were here at 5 am, but I bet it was 2 am your time, and you just hadn't gone to bed yet! :)

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your example. I was in the Maass workshop, too, but it helps to see actualy examples. I especially appreciated your comment about tension being different for different type stories (humor, suspense, etc.)

    Save me some tea! YOu don't have to drink it all yourself. :)

  6. Ok Camy I'll be brave and take you up on this offer lol!
    Ignore my grammar errors. The start of this paragraph is killing me. I just can't get tension and emotion right.

    Since Jana had moved it was the first time in a month that Brie had seen her. (Ugh I know)

    It was the first time in a month that she had seen her best friend. The emptiness of her heart was eating her alive. (better, maybe? hmmm)

    Ok going to get some chocolate now while waiting what you really think lol!

  7. Camy....

    Every sentence! I know my WIP doesn't have tension in every sentence.

    I do try to have tension in every paragraph but I think I'll make an exercise of trying to get it in every sentence. Thanks to your example.


  8. Hey Camster, I know that coffee and tea is from last night. LOL But yummy just the same. Because your bedtime is about the time I'm getting up.

    Thanks for the great example. It really helps to understand when you SEE the difference.

    I don't have an example off hand, but you better believe I'm going to go look at my wip and see if there is tension in every sentence. yikes.

  9. Irish tea?? Oh, honey, you got me there! Love ANYTHING Irish. I'll supply the cinnamon pecan Irish breakfast scones.

    Camy, LOVE the blog, especially the scene examples. WOW, talk about a night-and-day difference!!

    But tension in EVERY sentence??? Wow, that's quite a tall order, but if anybody can do it, it's Donald Maas!! I do totally agree you need tension in every paragraph if at all possible and definitely in every single scene.

    Like Cheryl, I don't have any concrete examples, but I sure loved yours.


  10. I'm trying to conceptualize tension in every sentence. My CP just sent back my latest two chapters. I was doing good to get tension in every paragraph.

  11. Thanks Camy,
    Those examples really help because after the statement 'tension in every sentence' I felt like I needed to retake The Journeyman course all over again ;-)

    But I see what you mean about the difference. And I prefer humor too :-) Wonderful examples. Thanks a bunch.

    Julie - do you ever have trouble writing tension?!? Come on...really? ;-) It seems to ooze out of your characters' pores.

    Oh, btw, talking about 'tension' & 'conflict', I just finished Mary's The Husband Tree last night (instead of grading papers...ouch). But it's all Mary's fault - so I'm telling that to my undergrad students when they start looking for their final semester averages :-)

  12. Hi Camy! Great post and love the example. I was wondering how much of the change were simply your voice, however. When I try to make those types of changes, I think I start sounding snarky. (Which I am, in fact, but I try to restain myself in print.)

  13. Thank you for the very practical tips on how to add tension, Camy! I appreciated seeing the before and after examples. And I like what you said about adding tension to every paragraph (vs. sentence). If we make it our goal to add as much tension as possible and make every sentence count, then hopefully we'll keep the reader engaged!

  14. I well remember the time I was writing along and realized I had the hero and heroine standing in the kitchen folding laundry and chatting for about four pages.

    Uh, hello, the book has died. Either get the paddles and shock this sucker back to life, or bury it.

    So when I lamented that my book was GARBAGE I believe it was Ruthy who suggested I leave the door open adn let a toddler run out into traffic.

    Only another writer would suggest such a's never been published btw.

    But who knows, maybe someday. If I can get the stupid laundry finished and put away.

  15. Hi Camy,

    Loved your posting today...I enjoy reading about the 'behind the scenes' viewpoint of your writings. You make it look so, so easy.

    Have a great day.


  16. Ruthy, cookies for breakfast! I love it! You and I think alike.

    Melanie, I originally had him set up as a "suspicious character" for part of the book, but he's the hero. In the published version, it's clear from the onset that he's not guilty.

    Cheryl--wasn't that seminar fun? I loved it.

    Missy--I didn't know you drank tea! LOL I firmly believe in different types of tension simply because each writer is so different.

    Kerri--you wonderful brave soul! Sorry I couldn't be here earlier to comment. I think you have two options: you could either change the situation (right now, those two sentences are "telling" rather than "showing," so if you changed to the character doing something rather than thinking those things, it might automatically add more tension) or you could add more tension-filled words to those sentences to tweak them into something stronger and more conflicted.

    Rose--try it! Let us know how it turns out! I think you'll be pleasantly surprised yourself.

    Sandra--thanks! I always learn better from an example than just an explanation.

    Julie--CINNAMON PECAN IRISH BREAKFAST SCONES????? Oh honey I want to move in with you. I agree with you that tension in every sentence is a tall order, but definitely in every paragraph is what I aim for. I think it makes a difference in my pacing and readability.

    Walt--good for you!

    Pepper--yes, it's always Mary's fault!

    Patricia--well, my type of tension tends to be snarky naturally. When I add tension to my romantic suspense and try to cut back on the snarkiness, the words I use are different from my example here--they're more "dangerous" type words since the heroine's life is usually in danger. I think the type of tension depends on the writer and on the genre of the manuscript.

    Jody--definitely! Thanks!

    Mary--LOL! That's how my date scene was before I added tension. And even after adding tension, the scene itself was so blah that it ended up getting cut entirely anyway.


  17. Wow, Camy! Welcome to Seekerville! Loved those examples : ) Ughhhh! Tension...I could feel some last night...long story involving my divrced parents : /! I wanted to pop in here quick and let you all know that I heard back from my first college today...Colby-Sawyer accepted me!!!! They actually called me : D I just HAD to tell you/brag just a lil! They have about 1200 students there right now. So, it's really hard to get in.

    Okay, gotta go eat celebratory choco chip sis is HUNGRY!!
    Thanks and talk to you later,
    Hannah *can't stop smiling like crazy!!!!*

  18. Camy, don't worry -- I made those scones up, but they do sound good, don't they???

    Pepper ... yeah, I guess tension does tend to "ooze out of my character's pores" because it pretty much oozes out of mine as well. I'm a VERY tense person, you know. Just ask my husband ... the guy with glazed eyes. :)

    And, uh, just how in the heck did you get a copy of The Husband Tree, you little brat???? I'm jealous.


  19. I am so jealous of you too, Pepper! How did you get yours before me? I want my Husband Tree! (I mean the book, of course, not the actual tree. That would be very bad.) Wah!

  20. Good thing to remember, Camy! It's sometimes hard to add tension when we want our hero and heroine to get along--of course, then we won't have much of a story.

  21. I love Camy's teaching posts. I print them up and add them to my notebook.

    Thank you!!!!

  22. Congrats, Hannah! That's awesome!

    Julie you made those scones up??? You brat. ;)

    Cara--I know, I'm always fighting the tendency for everybody to get along in my stories. LOL

  23. Aw, thanks, Tina! You're sweet. :)

  24. Julie & Melanie,
    So sorry (said while waving my book in front of the computer) ;-)

    It was in the bookstore yesterday when I went to pick up a Christmas gift. I was shocked.
    Thought it wouldnt' be out 'till Jan 1 - but, boy oh boy, had much more fun reading than grading.

    It was a hard choice to make, you know :-)

    I hope to have a review up by next week...but....grades first. Ugh
    80 to be exact.
    But it was loads more fun wrangling grumpy cattle and even grumpier women across the West. Yep, much more fun.
    No wonder I became distracted ;-)

  25. I don't think your changes added more tension.

    Here's my version. Let me know what you think.

    Wow, she was having lunch with Dr. Devon Knightley. How cool!

    “What kind of crappy menu is this?” Devon peered at her over the top of his menu.

    “Umm, uhh.”

    “You seem … nervous.” Devon crowned her with a smile dreamier than the Grinch. “I hope it’s not because I'm a zombie now.”

    “Of course not.” Maybe he’d ask her for her number this time. Last time they’d met, he hadn’t, but now that she was undead, maybe he’d become more interested. She couldn’t believe he was taking her out instead of eating her more beautiful sisters' brains. “When Rachel and Aunt Becca both said they couldn’t go to lunch, it was really nice of you to insist on taking just me.”

    His eye fell into his water glass. “How could I disappoint Becca when she’d worked so hard?”

    Well, Aunt Becca had been rather obvious in trying to kill the zombie hordes. Embarrassment heated her neck and she looked at her menu.

    Better? Just a couple small changes is all you need.


  26. Wow, how did I miss the fact I forgot to add the zombies? Gosh I'm such a dunce. Good rewrite!

  27. I think you got the "sick and twisted" part exactly right. But I don't particularly think it's funny.

    Conflict and tension that is essential to the story is one thing. Gratuitously pandering to adrenalin junkies with deep pockets is a different matter.

    I'd rather write work that reflects my values, even if it means my audience will be smaller. There are all kinds of words for people who compromise their beliefs to make money. None of them are particularly suited for polite conversation.

    Words have power. Those who write to please a sick world should not be surprised, or complain, it it becomes a bit sicker.

    If you want to write material packed with conflict and tension, nobody will stop you. But I shant - unless it fits as a natural part of the story I want to tell (which leaves plenty of room to manuver).

    Nothing personal,

  28. Thanks for the mini-lesson on adding conflict in every sentence, Camy.

    I've been told by some of the best the same thing, and seeing your example sure helped clarify it.

  29. I was at the Maass seminar too. I was so impressed with how difficult it was for an entire room full of writers to get the sort of conflict he was looking for in the interior monologue scenes and actions scenes. It was pretty easy to nail the dialogue.

    The secret seems to lie in the warring emotions within the POV character. I loved the tip in his new book about pitting allies against each other. Tension among friends. Something like this when two good friends are talking:

    Jojo cleaned the last drops from her plate. “You’re sparking with that man.”
    A moment of silence. “No way.”
    “What did he say about his car?”
    His car? “Why would he say anything about it?”
    She waved her hand. “Never mind. You could never fit in his world, you know.”
    “Thanks for pointing that out.”
    “We set our course long ago, girl.”
    “You’re such a comfort tonight.”
    “You want comfort? Maybe I should remind you of the hypocrites back in Dallas.”

    What do you think? Does the tension come through?

  30. I like it. This is always a challenge for me. But, uh, "Dreamier than McDreamy"?

  31. Thanks Camy! Sorry, I feel like I cheated you out of compliments of your superb post yesterday! It's just that I wanted to come to Seekerville as soon as I heard to announce the news : ) I still feel like I'm full and ready to burst with happiness...or have I already burst!?

  32. Steve, you're certainly welcome to your own opinion, but I'm sure you won't take it personally if I disagree with your assessment.

    Thanks, Pam! I'm glad the example was helpful.

    Teri, that example is AWESOME! You did a great job showing tension between two friends, and yet they're not yelling at each other. It adds obstacles to the main character's path to have a friend doubt her.

    Ron, you see now why the scene got axed????


  33. Karen! OH MY GOSH I totally didn't see your comment until just now! I'm so sorry! Thanks for commenting!

  34. Nicely done. Thanks for sharing. Deadly Intent has made it from the TBR shelf to the knee wall in the bathroom. It'll be read on the next hot soak in the tub. :o)

  35. Can we make it Camy and Cocoa?!? So enjoyed "Deadly Intent" and love the extra scene. I'm looking forward to my of your books!
    Blessings and Merry Christmas

  36. Hey, great, Rhonda! I hope you enjoy it!

    Thanks so much, Holly! :)