Monday, April 7, 2014

Conflict and Tension Tips

Last week I went through some notes I’d received from a beta reader. In one chapter, my reader highlighted an area and suggested ramping up the tension. I saw her point: that particular scene, with some adjusting, could have been seriously suspenseful. How could I get it there? I dove into my own recollection of conflict and tension tips, and did some poking around for new ones, too.  And, being a Revision Warrior, OF COURSE I wanted to share them here.


Less is More.

-     Dialogue: During a tense scene, abrupt dialogue with short—even incomplete—sentences is great for setting a hurried pace.

-     Action Scenes: Writing a scene with short sentences helps establish a quick tempo, which in turn builds tension.

-     Setting: Setting can play a huge role in establishing tension, but don’t get carried away on the adjectives. This, by the way, happens to be a trouble spot for me. Too much time spent describing the creepy stairwell takes the reader out of the moment.

Put your MC through the ringer.  What’s the one thing that could possibly break your MC’s spirit? What’s the one thing that absolutely can’t happen if the plan is going to work?  Consider making it happen. Make it personal. WHY would Situation A be devastating for your protagonist, in particular?

This can be hard. A brilliant lady from my writing group (Marlana Antifit) proposed that my MC face a betrayal, and even suggested who the betrayer should be.  I was not immediately on-board.  Not only would it be one of the worst kinds of betrayal, but the betrayer is a favorite character of mine.  But I couldn’t deny, it would add a layer of conflict I could play with for many chapters.  It could also help inspire readers to keep turning pages. So, as cringe-worthy as it was, I did it. 

Are your characters enthralling? Make sure your readers care what happens to your protagonist. Create characters so vivid, so intriguing that readers want to stay on this journey with them. They don’t all have to be likeable. In fact, who wants a perfectly perfect protagonist? But the reader should certainly want to see how your cast of characters react to whatever train wreck you throw them into.

The stand-by: Show don’t Tell.  While this is always a good rule, I think it doubly applies here.  When that climactic scene finally appears on the page, readers want to be in that moment.  Convey thoughts and feelings through action as much as possible.  

                As an example, instead of: “Feeling scared, she grabbed a knife from the drawer.” 

Maybe try, “Hand trembling, she opened the drawer and pulled a knife from the tray.”

Read a page-turner. It’s like taking a refresher course. One of my go-to reads is JULIE OF THE WOLVES by Jean Craighead George

It's a quick read and I’d recommend picking it up if you haven’t.  Here’s the gist of it:  A girl is lost in the tundra and her survival depends on learning to communicate with a pack of wolves. Yes, a pack of wolves.  I first read the story in the fifth grade.  I remember being terrified for Julie, yet also wanting to be her at the same time.  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read it by now. 

Remember learning the literary concepts of conflict in grade school? JULIE OF THE WOLVES has it all, Man vs. Man, Nature, Self, Society... after I read JULIE, I always feel inspired.

Play up those chapter hooks.  In TV-speak we called this a “teaser”.  Always end your chapters with a suspenseful hook, a tidbit that will make diving into the next chapter irresistible. 

On that ever-challenging First Chapter...  In the opening pages, your protagonist should be doing something. The reader wants to get to know your main character, and what better way than by throwing them in the proverbial fire? By the end of a few famous opening chapters, we knew Harry Potter was the Boy Who Lived and Katniss alluded to the horror of the Hunger Games. And Julie, from JULIE OF THE WOLVES? On page one she’s already lost in the Arctic Tundra, laying on her belly, staring at a pack of wolves. 

Do you have any go-to tips or great reads for tension? Please share!


  1. Thanks for all these AMAZING tips!!

    Ah, that FIRST CHAPTER.... I don't know how many times I've rewritten mine. I might have to do it again after reading this! Eeee!

    Julie of the Wolves is going on my to-read list! Graceling by Kristin Cashore has a great opening chapter. It plunged me right into Katsa's world. Loved it! :)

  2. As always, you are too kind with your compliments. :) These are wonderful tips. I remember one night at my critique group meeting, three out of four submissions had our protagonists vomiting! - LOL. But it is so true, if you torture your MC until there's nothing left, you've done your job as an author. :)