Conflict vs Tension

I’m in the middle of exploring a new story idea, which means I’m knee-deep in notes, questions, character interviews, and everything else that goes into the planning process. As Jo March liked to say, “Genius is burning,” and I’m terrified to interrupt the process, lest it fizzle away and leave me whimpering. So today I’m reposting an oldie-but-a-goodie that I hope will spark some new ideas for you all.

Pulling readers into the story, reader curiousity, reader interest,One 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.


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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32 Responses to Conflict vs Tension

  1. Pingback: Ultimate Screenwriting Guide: How To Create Conflict & Tension In Your Screenplay | The Screenwriting Spark

  2. Sherrey Meyer says:

    Becca, thanks for clarifying the differences between these two important elements in our writing. All along I’ve accepted that they were synonymous, but with your well written explanation I now see that there is a difference. Clipping this into Evernote under writing tips ASAP!

  3. Fireworks moment here. THANK YOU!

  4. Gwen Stephens says:

    This was definitely a lightbulb for me, Becca! Especially the bits about conflict in every scene, and establishing primal stakes! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  5. Pingback: Writing and Tension/Conflict | Themself

  6. Trula says:

    What a great post/article. You explain with such clarity what tension is vs what conflict is. I followed Bookshelf Muse for a couple years, and am in awe how you guys have bloomed into Writers Helping Writers, and your description books are priceless. Big grateful fan here.

  7. Joanne says:

    Good points!
    To me, conflict is about what is happening now, while tension relates to what *may* happen (in the future of the story). So conflict arouses interest and excitement in the reader, while tension (will it? won’t it? should it? but what if?) arouses hope or dread, and pulls the reader along to see how things pan out.

  8. This is a great explanation. I’m pasting this into my notes folder. Thanks for your books, Becca. I refer to them constantly.

  9. Nicely defined. Thanks. In his book THE FIRE IN FICTION, Donald Maass devotes a whole chapter to tension, titled TENSION ALL THE TIME. And he’s not talking about car chases and bombs exploding.

  10. Conflict in every scene. It sounds counter-productive but it works!

  11. Pingback: What’s Up Wednesday | Katy Upperman

  12. Daniel Ionson says:

    Good stuff. Glad I found your site.

  13. Barbara Keevil Parker says:

    Great reminder. I will be re-reading my manuscript to see how I’m doing.

  14. Thanks for the reminder!

  15. Lyn Davis says:

    This was the ‘aha’ moment.
    I’m writing my NaNo…and in my rereads, I have felt the ‘lack’ you cited. I have conflict…tons of it…but oops, lacking the tension.

    Now I know what I have to do in the editing process.

    I shared on Twitter/FB Thanks for sharing with me.

  16. Rosi says:

    This is a great post, so clear and important for a writer. I had a wonderful critique recently at a workshop and all over my manuscript the same five words popped up. “But how does he feel?” You are so right. If my character doesn’t feel the tension, I will lose the reader. Thanks for this post. Very timely for me.

  17. This is a great reminder of the importance of getting rid of those scenes which just don’t move the story forward! Thanks for the post!

  18. Marilyn says:

    I am SO glad I started following your blog long ago. This has been the best bit of advice I have ever received. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  19. Saumya says:

    This was SO helpful for me as I went through edits tonight. Thank you!

  20. Jemi Fraser says:

    I like this! I’m still struggling with this and your post helped clarify it in my brain. now if I can only keep it there! 🙂

  21. Johanna says:

    This was a good reminder for me today. Tension. I need to make sure it’s there. All. The. Time.

  22. Sheri Larsen says:

    I’ve thought about this before, but never to these lengths. I really enjoyed your assessment of both conflict and tension. I guess conflict is the logic behind the problem blocking the goal from the character. Tension is exactly what you said: an emotional trigger for the reader – seat gripping which increases as the pages turn. 🙂 Thanks for making me think!

  23. Angela Brown says:

    I have to say, when I had a beta reader go over my last book, he found the conflict and tension but he was also wonderful in helping me find ways to amp up the tension, raise the “already there” stakes even higher. So I appreciate you mentioning this because it is by adding the tension that I found re-reading the story exciting for myself lol!

  24. Jan Swanson says:

    I was struggling with this too until someone hit me with a cattle prodder. Thanks to the neurons sending messages to my brain, I realized that conflict and tension were not the same. Thank you for your post to remind me again. Your wonderful books are very helpful to me in the assessment of my final draft. Well okay, I will probably critique it again and again…

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