Janet here. I’m always happy to host my good friend and critique partner, Shirley Jump, in Seekerville. For more of Shirley's tips on conflict, go here to the Seekerville archives. Today she’s defining conflict and tension, the stuff that keeps readers turning pages. So without further ado, here’s Shirley!
Remember science class, where you learned about the Symbiotic relationships between different species? How there are parasitic relationships (where one creatures takes from another, and doesn’t give anything back (those images of the lamprey still give me nightmares), commensalism (where neither species is hurt or helped) and mutualism (where both species are helped). I’m not going to go all Science Professor on you here, because believe me, I am no scientist. Instead, I just bring this up as a way to help you see the relationship between Tension and Conflict.
First, let’s talk about the differences between Tension and Conflict.
Conflict is the ROADBLOCKS, whether physical or emotional, which get in your character’s way as he is trying to achieve his goal. It’s the villain chasing him with a gun, the car that won’t start, the bank that won’t give him the loan, his mistrust of people, his inability to get close to another person, etc.
Tension is the pit-of-your-gut feeling as you’re reading a book that makes you keep turning the pages. It’s the worry for the characters. You worry whether they will be okay. Whether the hero and heroine will find love. Whether the hero will rescue his child. Whether the heroine will find out the truth about her father, and if she does, what will happen then.
Conflict is the roadblocks. Tension is the QUESTIONS.
Tension has two levels, something that Maass talks about in Fire in Fiction. There is macro-tension—the big question, in other words, will the hero achieve his goal? It’s the question that runs from the beginning of the book to the end. Once that question is answered, the book is essentially done.
Micro-tension is the second level. This is the scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word tension. You use ALL the senses as often as possible to work this in. You use the dialogue, you use the descriptions, you use the pacing of the sentences. Study books that keep you feeling that tension, that force you to turn the pages simply by the sheer NEED TO KNOW.
That’s micro-tension. It’s created using a lot of different techniques. Think about a horror movie—think about the scene where the hapless heroine is ascending a dark staircase, approaching a slightly open door that creaks in the slight breeze coming in from the open window. Or is it creaking from something (or someone) else? That tense, tight, nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach as you watch the heroine climb those stairs, KNOWING SOMETHING BAD IS WAITING FOR HER, is micro-tension.
The director creates that by making the space dark, confined, putting the heroine at a physical disadvantage (no weapon, perhaps), and showing the emotions of trepidation on her face. He adds in the sounds coming from behind the door, the slight creak of someone walking across the floor, the feel of the cold door handle surprising the girl…in other words, he uses all the senses to create that tension in the pit of the viewer’s stomach.
Here’s an excerpt from Dennis Lehane’s GONE, BABY, GONE. Look at how he uses the descriptions to create that micro-tension from the very first pages:
Amanda McCready had been on this earth four years and seven months when she vanished. Her mother had put her to bed on Sunday night, checked in on her once around eight-thirty, and the next morning, shortly after nine, had looked in at Amanda's bed and seen nothing but sheets dented with the wrinkled impression of her daughter's body.
The clothes Helene McCready had laid out for her daughter—a pink T-shirt, denim shorts, pink socks, and white sneakers—were gone, as was Amanda's favorite doll, a blond-haired replica of a three-year-old that bore an eerie resemblance to its owner, and whom Amanda had named Pea. The room showed no sign of struggle
The bedding, the pajamas, the missing doll…all that pulls at our heartstrings and increases the tension about the missing girl. You feel the vulnerability of her, you worry for her, you wonder if she’ll be found—and if she’ll be alive when she is found. It creates tension for the characters, and also for the reader.
In an interview with Donald Maass on ScribblersGazette.com, he explained tension thus:
When you suggest that writers consider over-lapping tension, does that refer to the scene as a little story, or tension on every page, or both?
Donald Maass: Well, both. A scene enacts a change – that’s a mini-story. But to get through even an eight page scene, to make every word essential reading, you need line-by-line tension. So, I guess in a way you’re thinking/writing on three levels at once: macro plot, scene mini-story, and micro-tension.
Is micro-tension the same as ‘tension on every page’?
Donald Maass: Yes. Last night I went to a tribute service for John Updike, great event, his widow and family were there. They played an interview… Updike said that what he writes about is the tension between what one wants, and what is. It’s the modern dilemma. It preoccupied him.
What a character wants and what is—that’s a great way to look at tension.
Here’s an excerpt from my latest Riverbend book, Family Christmas in Riverbend, that shows tension at play. See how what the heroine wants contrasts with what is:
He was holding their daughter. Actually holding her.
Livia’s heart flipped over in her chest, and she blinked, sure she was seeing things. But no, it was real. It was Edward.
And their daughter.
He turned when Livia entered. “Sshhh. She’s almost asleep,” he whispered.
“You’re…you’re holding her. More or less.” She stepped closer, forcing herself not to step in there and hold Piper herself because even she knew him just touching the baby was a huge step forward, “But you might want to hold her tighter, though.”
“Sorry.” He shifted his position but didn’t bring the baby any closer. It was like she was a time bomb and he was hoping like hell she wouldn’t go off. “I got kind of desperate when she wouldn’t stop crying.” He gave Livia a grin, the lopsided smile that he used to have, the one that had made her fall in love with him. And a part of her, she knew, had started falling for him again.
Dared to hope that this one moment could turn into two, then three, then four, then forever. It was only one sliver of time, she reminded herself. It didn’t mean anything.
But her heart refused to accept that. Refused to accept the lessons she had already learned. Edward Graham had no intentions of building a relationship of any depth.
Yet she saw how he had looked at Piper in that unguarded moment before he knew Livia was in the room. She had seen the tenderness on his face, and dared to dream of more. Of having it all—Edward a part of the circle of her and Piper. Hope was a stubborn thing.
You want to look at your plot like a roller coaster. There is tension in the chug up the hill, when you know that terrifying drop is about to come. Your stomach is tight, you’re nervous, you’re holding on tight. Click, click, click, the wheels go up, your stomach gets into more knots. Then you hit the top, whiz down the terrifying hill, and then, for a few brief seconds, it’s all flat coasting, before you start up the next hill. That’s how tension should work—rise and fall, rise and fall. If it’s all tense, then that gets boring. You want to keep that roller coaster pace throughout.
You do that by using your conflict tools. Throw roadblocks at your characters. Let them conquer some of them, fail at others. Those moments of success create the flat parts of the roller coaster, and just when they think they’re on a nice, even, quiet path, WHAM, you hit them with another roadblock/obstacle, i.e., conflict. That creates even more questions—will the heroine be able to overcome this new problem and reach her goal? Will she reach the top of the stairs before the killer catches her?
Conflict helps create tension, and tension helps add to conflict. The more roadblocks and obstacles your character has to overcome, the more the reader wonders if he can succeed at his goal. And tension adds to the conflict, because if the character is fearful or doubting or anxious, it can make overcoming an obstacle that much harder. These two story essentials have a strong symbiotic relationship that benefits both of them, because strong conflict and strong tension work well together. Create that roller coaster by using conflict and tension, and you’ll be creating a book that the reader is dying to finish!
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Shirley Jump spends her days writing romance and women’s fiction to feed her shoe addiction and avoid cleaning the toilets. She cleverly finds writing time by feeding her kids junk food, allowing them to dress in the clothes they find on the floor and encouraging the dogs to double as vacuum cleaners. Visit her website at www.shirleyjump.com or read recipes and life adventures at www.shirleyjump.blogspot.com.
Janet again. Shirley is giving away a five-pack of her Harlequin romances. If you’d like to win, leave a comment. Ask a question. Her eBook The Bride Wore Chocolate goes live on Nook on B&N on May 23 and in Amazon in June.
To celebrate Shirley’s visit, I’ve set up a buffet, a duplicate of the fabulous food on the Mother’s Day brunch our family enjoyed. Omelets, Belgium waffles, beef, salmon, chicken, salads, vegetable dishes, desserts galore, whatever you have a yen for you’ll find on this spread.
Oh, no, we have no plates. Talk about a roadblock! A quick trip to the store for paper plates will fix that. But oh, what if I gobble all that food and disgust the man of my dreams, watching from across the crowded room? Dare I indulge?
Sorry. That was a silly attempt at conflict and tension. LOL My dreamboat never finds me disgusting. I asked. The plates aren’t plastic, they're Haviland. ;-) Grab one and let’s talk conflict and tension.