Conflict vs Tension

I’ve had a writing epiphany that I’m DYING to share with people who won’t stare blankly at me while I talk and smile politely when I’m done. Lucky all of you.

conflictOne of my critiquers recently said something that made me think. She kept writing notes in my manuscript like Where’s the tension? and This would be a good spot to add tension.

No tension? What’s she talking about? The main character was just abandoned by her father. Her best friend was attacked by racist pigs. The family farm is about to go under. I mean, there is conflict ALL OVER the place, so how can she say there’s no tension??

Well, after chewing on this for awhile, I came to realize that I was confusing tension with conflict. Although the terms are often used interchangeably (and they CAN be synonymous), they aren’t necessarily the same.

Blake Snyder (Save The Cat) defines CONFLICT like this: a character enters a scene with a goal and standing in the way is an obstacle. That’s conflict, and it’s necessary to holding the reader’s interest.

TENSION in literature is important because it evokes emotion in the reader. Think of it in terms of real-life tension–that tight, stretched feeling in your belly that makes you all jittery. This is what you want your reader to feel in every single scene of your story. Tension connects the reader with the character and most of the time will keep them reading to the end of the book.

How are the two related? Conflict should create tension. But it doesn’t, not all the time. I think of the movies my brother-in-law likes to watch, where things are always exploding and I couldn’t care less. Lots of conflict. No tension. Thank God for Teralyn, whose honest comments opened my eyes to this whole idea so I can a) fix my current novel and b) not write another book with this problem.

So how, you might ask, do we write a book that’s chock full of tension? Three things:

1. Conflict in every scene. Yes, every single scene. It can be big and noisy (a fistfight) or it can be quiet (a person who wants two opposing things), but make sure it’s there. Too many stretches without conflict and the story starts to drag. Your reader loses interest. Examine every scene to make sure there is a clear conflict. If there isn’t any, either add some or just throw the scene out, because it’s not moving your story forward anyway.

2. Primal stakes. In order for conflict to create tension in your reader, the reader has to care about your character. For that to happen, the reader has to relate to your character’s struggle. To paraphrase Blake Snyder again, a plot that hinges on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of a loved one, fear of death, revenge, love, etc. will connect with readers at a basic level because everyone gets those things. One of the problems in my story was that I was trying to push saving the family farm as the character’s goal when I should have been pushing survival. In my head, the two were synonymous, but I focused on one and not the other, and the reader didn’t make the connection. Make the stakes ones every reader will relate to, and you’ll have the tension you need to keep them interested.

3. Clear emotional responses. Sometimes the lack of tension is caused when a writer doesn’t clearly convey the character’s emotional response to conflict. I’ve read these stories where something nasty happens to the character but their response to it is flat or understated. And I think, if SHE doesn’t care that she just got kicked out of school, why should I? This must not be a big deal after all. Make sure your character’s response matches the conflict, in appropriateness and intensity.

There you go. Light bulb on. This is probably old news to many of you, but I figure if I’m struggling with it, maybe someone else is, too. Pay it forward, peeps, pay it forward.


Image: PublicDomainPictures @ Pixabay


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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[…] final Harry Potter movie last week. I think I’m in mourning. I’m also still pondering the tension piece of writing, and how important it is. Put those two pieces together, and you (or at least I) get an […]

Laura Pauling
7 years ago

Awesome post! I remember the realization of tension vs micro-tension vs macro tension. It can get confusing, but when done well…it’s worth it! Good luck on the story!

Stéphanie Noël
7 years ago

As I’m just about to enter the dreaded revision phase, this is pure gold! I will make sure to review with this in mind.

7 years ago

I’ve been working on #3 in my MS. You’re right, the emotional response needs to be enagaging; a character who is overly sensible is no fun! That’s where those flaws come in. Easier said than done.

Cedric J. Sims
9 years ago

I’ll keep this in mind when working on my book. Sometimes it’s hard to add conflict and tension to every single scene. Maybe that comes from me being a young writer

Matthew MacNish
9 years ago

How in the world did I miss this one? Thanks to Stina, I’ve now seen it.

9 years ago

Great advice. One of my chapters recently was mentioned to “drag” by a cp of mine and reading your column, I think what she really meant was there wasn’t enough tension in it. Thanks for the eye-opening!!

Emily Casey
9 years ago

A truly enlightening post, as always.

9 years ago

Thanks for sharing this – I’ll be re-reading my scenes with a new eye now!

Kelly McClymer
9 years ago

I’m sure it sounds terrible to say this, but I didn’t really understand the difference between tension and conflict until I began to teach writing and had to explain in it explicit, specific story-centric terms.

I love Blake Crouch’s SAVE THE CAT, but the truth is that saving the farm *and* survival are both stakes that readers understand, but don’t feel. The stakes that cause tension are the ones that cause the reader to worry — sometimes more than the character does (the ubiquitous walking down the basement stairs to investigate a noise 🙂 Primal stakes have two facets — the universal (a parent’s need to protect a child) and the uniquely character intimate (Sophie’s Choice).

I hope, by the time I’ve taught the concept another decade, I’ll finally be able to stop ripping apart my own scene drafts to insert better stakes and raise the tension for the readers, not just for the characters 🙂

Becca Puglisi
9 years ago

Kath, I told you you guys should pop in more often. You never know what I’m writing about the family here. MWAHHAHAHAA!!

9 years ago

Your Brotherinlaw? My husband’s famous!! :). Hi Becca.

Katrina L. Lantz
9 years ago

I just got feedback similar to that and was like, wait, what? You can’t tell she’s suspicious and freaking out?

Turns out after overdoing the inner monologue on a previous book, I’ve been a bare-bones writer ever since. That means there can be lots of conflict, but only one line of tension. I’m not giving the reader time to soak in it so it becomes meaningful. Just as you said!

Thanks for reaffirming this for me! I needed it.

Lisa Gail Green
9 years ago

This is so AWESOME! Thank you. What a great delineation between conflict and tension. Something that I never consciously bothered to define. DUR. I love this post!

Carol Riggs
9 years ago

Really good stuff, and GREAT to point out the diff. I’ve had the same comment on my novels too. Conflict but not tension. Thanks for making this more clear! Now, off to our writing documents to ratchet up the tension…

Angie Cothran
9 years ago

Fantastic! Need I say more?

Diane Fordham
9 years ago

Top post Becca, thank you. I definately will be putting more thought into the tension the conflict causes as I write. You explained it so well!

Jeff King
9 years ago

Nice… it always helps to see it broken down.

9 years ago

Fundamental distinction brilliantly explained! Great post.

Tracey Wood
9 years ago

“Things are always exploding and I couldn’t care less,” LOL! And so agree.

9 years ago

Conflicts add to the story. Makes things pop. People want to see drama, see the fist fist fly and hear the screams of pain and panic. Drama and Tension is a great combination for a great story.

Stina Lindenblatt
9 years ago

Awesome post, Becca. I also figured these things out while reading STC. Like you, I thought conflict = tension.

9 years ago

Great article! I agree very much that this is a distinction. In my mind, conflict is more plot-related, while tension is more scene-related and visceral. You can’t have tension without conflict, but you CAN have conflict without tension. Tension exists down at the sentence level, and it’s communicated through the images and descriptions we pick and way we time scenes.

Carrie Butler
9 years ago

Thanks for sharing, Becca! These are some great things to keep in mind. 🙂

Sarah Pearson
9 years ago

This is definitely one to bookmark. Thank you for breaking it down so neatly.

9 years ago

Thanks for bringing this up! Nope, you’re not the only one who feels this may be a roadblock in their writing.

Jaleh D
9 years ago

I had someone tell me there wasn’t enough tension in my beginning to one story. It bugged me because the first major conflict isn’t supposed to happen right there. But you’re right; tension is very different from conflict. I need to get more tension into my quiet beginning so that the conflict has bigger impact and provides even more tension.

Martha Ramirez
9 years ago

Awesome post! Thank you. Will be sharing this.

9 years ago

Thanks! Great things to think about while writing!!!

Laura Pauling
9 years ago

AWesome! I see conflict as for the overall scene, chapter, or book. I see tension as sentence to sentence, page to page showing the character’s response to the conflict! Off to retwee!