When a protagonist makes a bad decision, it creates conflict for himself and others, and this tension is what makes us want to keep turning pages.
Events alone are not stories. A series of events can become a story, but there must be motivation, struggle and resolution.
Example: A girl and her brother head to the beach and spend the morning building a sand castle. This event does not scream conflict. However, anyone who has ever had a sibling knows there is always potential for this event to become explosive.
Let’s say the siblings have a long history of competitiveness. Instead of sharing the task of building one sand castle, they each create their own. When the castles are finished, the brother slips in the sand and falls on top of his sister’s creation. His sister yells at him and stomps into the house to tell on him to their parents.
So far, this is an event, but not true conflict. Without conflict there is no story.
By adding more elements, this incident can become a story. The brother may have a deep-seated belief his sister has always been the favored one, so he purposefully undermines her by sabotaging her castle when he pretends to trip and crashes on top of his sister’s creation. Now we have motive and internal conflict.
This event can be further developed if the boy accidently ruins his sister’s castle. Perhaps he has a physical disability that makes him clumsy, which is why his sister insisted on making her own castle. His physical limitations are also behind his belief that his parents like his unencumbered sibling better. This external conflict is part of his struggle.
He tries to fix her castle, knowing he will be yelled at and possibly grounded. Conflict and tension build because, by the time the kid’s parents come down to the beach, a rogue wave washes in and knocks the boy off his feet and into the ocean. Another element of his struggle: he cannot swim.
The conflict resolution occurs when his sister dives in to save him. This is not only a surprise, but a satisfying conclusion. If this is a longer piece, such as a novel, the resolution applies to this moment, but creates a secondary conflict leading to the next scene.
Other ways to add tension are through dialogue, action, character description and narrative.
Each scene in your story, novel or memoir must have conflict, struggle and a resolution. A good source for creating emotional tension and conflict is Writing With Emotion, Tension, and Conflict by Cheryl St. John.
Exercise: Next time you watch TV or a film, take notes on how the conflict builds, which characters struggle (and how) and finally, how the situation is resolved.
Laura Moe is board president of EPIC Group Writers and the author of Breakfast With Neruda and two other novels. Her current WIP, to which she contributes 600-1000 words a day, has lots of conflict.
Thanks for the shout out! Got the notification for this post in my Google alerts this morning. I LOVE good conflict.
Cheryl St.John’s book is absolutely fantastic! It’s easy to understand and breaks down the true heart of storytelling: conflict!
Excellent craft book!
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