Story tension doesn’t mean everyone fights

Last time, I noted that tension is one of the key elements that keeps readers turning pages. One mistake new writers make is confusing conflict with tension.

Conflict is opposition—it’s a fight. When the hero wants one thing, and the villain wants the opposite, that’s conflict.

Tension is strain—a stretching, possibly to one’s limit. If the hero is climbing a mountain, his muscles are under tension, and so is the reader if there’s a danger he might fall. But he’s not in conflict—unless someone is trying to stop him.

In other words, conflict involves at least two forces, but tension can involve only one.

Writers can get confused on this point:

Each scene includes tension and moves the plot forward

Some writers take this to mean that everyone has to be fighting all the time. Hence stupid arguments between characters who could easily sort things out if they’d just be honest for five minutes.

Do real people sometimes have stupid arguments because they’re not being honest? Sure. But check your character motivation. If she’s not being honest, why? Too often, the writer keeps characters from being honest for no reason than to orchestrate a fight between them.

If your character is being dishonest—with himself or someone else—there had better be a deep-seated psychological or story-driven reason for it. The girl with a sordid history may conceal it out of fear or insecurity. The undercover agent can’t reveal his identity until he knows he can trust the heroine not to blow his cover. But unless there’s a solid reason for dishonesty, cut that pointless argument out and replace it with something meaningful.

plank exercise tension
© oliophotography –

Every scene doesn’t need to have a fight in it. It doesn’t have to be face-off conflicts all the time. Think about the plank exercise. When you do it, your body is under tension. But there’s no conflict.

Tension could be discord, or uncertainty, or a character’s internal struggle. It can be as subtle as something out of place in a usually well-ordered home. It holds the readers’ interest and keeps them turning pages.

Ideally, every scene will move the plot forward. Scenes that reveal character are important, but ideally you want to make every scene do double or triple duty. In addition to developing the characters, also show the setting, or establish context, or add any of the other elements we’ll be discussing. And try to move the plot.

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