Today’s guest post is written by Elizabeth Craig who writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink.
She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010, 2011, and 2012. Her most recent releases are Quilt or Innocence (June 2012) , Hickory Smoked Homicide (a November 2011 release), and A Dyeing Shame a Myrtle Clover mystery (December 2011). Her next release will be February 5, 2013–Knot What it Seams.
Elizabeth is active in the online writing community. She shares writing-related links on Twitter as @elizabethscraig and posts on craft and the publishing industry on her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder. She and Mike Fleming of Hiveword also manage the Writer’s Knowledge Base–a free search engine to help writers find resources.
Developing Conflict and Tension in Our Story
Conflict is one of the elements of an interesting story. As much as we love our characters, if everything goes smoothly for them, then it’s hard to keep our readers reading. After all—if it’s just an ordinary day for our protagonist, then we really don’t have much of a story.
A few tips for developing conflict and tension:
Quickly introduce conflict into your story. If it’s delayed too long, the reader might start flipping ahead through the set-up and back story to see where the story really gets started.
Use both larger conflicts and smaller ones. A lower level of conflict can be easily maintained by introducing tension in our story. Maybe we’ve got a character who lost his job and is struggling to make ends meet. He finally snares a job interview—and it’s for his dream job. His car breaks down on the way to the interview. He was in a hurry when he left, and forgot his phone. This approach can resonate with readers, too—it’s realistic and relatable. It can also give us an opportunity for us to display a character’s personality to our readers…when we show how the character reacts to the problem.
Provide conflict through other characters. Here we do need to watch our character motivation and know our character and what matches his personality. Who rubs our character the wrong way and why can tell us a lot about the protagonist as well as the other character. We could bring in an ex-wife, an overprotective father, an annoying neighbor, or a backstabbing co-worker. Every time we have a scene with one of the troublesome characters, we have the opportunity for tension.
Use both internal conflict and external conflict. What are our character’s inner demons? What’s our character fighting with himself over? Consider how his internal conflict can shape the story and his reaction to events. What external conflict prevents him from obtaining his goal?
Raise the stakes to create a faster pace. Raising the stakes and making the conflicts and outcomes increasingly dire for the protagonist is one way to increase our story’s pace and keep readers turning pages.
Try to delay resolution. One thing that’s been difficult for me as a writer is delaying resolution of the protagonist’s problems. I’m a problem-solver in life and I want to solve my character’s problems, too. But letting problems spiral out of control and allowing them to gnaw at my protagonist can add excitement and tension to a story.
Give readers some breathing room. Some of this is personal taste, but as a reader, I really enjoy having breaks in the tension and conflict. This break can be accomplished through humor, or a subplot that’s moving along the path to resolution when hope in the main plot seems to be lost.
Make the protagonist’s external conflict and internal conflict collide. What if our character had to sacrifice what’s most important to him in order to accomplish his main goal? What if he’s got to face his inner demons to save the world?
Tension and conflict are two ways to keep readers turning pages. What tips have you got for developing them in a story?
Writer’s Knowledge Base–the Search Engine for Writers
I’ve improved with each book, although emotional conflict is still the easiest.
Those are good, Elizabeth! I’m hoping I nailed the conflict with my third book – I threw everything but the kitchen sink at my main character.
It sounds like a fantastic read, Alex!
Elizabeth – You have some really very good ideas here for using conflict . I agree completely that it’s got to be done in a way that doesn’t take over the story. Otherwise it tires the reader I think. And conflict can be built even in small ways, like fighting for a parking spot, or a neighbour’s dog that barks a lot. Just those little touches can add a bit of zest to a story.
Margot–Great point. It’s the little things that get under our skin that can really impact a character’s day–maybe even cause them to make a poor decision simply because they’re tired or distracted.
Nice tips. What I like is you take the time to explain them and why they are important to the story you are creating.
Hi Sia! Thanks for coming by. And thanks…I’ve worked hard to add conflict to my stories. I think that’s because I’m very UN-confrontational in person, so I’ve had to really go against my instincts to write it into my books for my poor characters to deal with.
It’s really difficult to see a cherished character put in a perilous position but without the conflict the reader’s attentions drifts.
Thanks for hosting me today, F.C.!
It’s a pleasure, Elizabeth, and a really great post.