Thursday, July 26, 2012

Becca Puglusi on Conflict vs. Tension

Today, I have the great privilege of hosting my favorite blogger, Becca Puglisi. (I was going to say "one of my favorites," but I realized that The Bookshelf Muse really is my favorite blog.) She and Angela Ackerman turned recently their brilliant blog idea into "Emotion Thesaurus," a resource to help writers show-not-tell how their characters feel, which is available for purchase.

I asked her to let me post one of her favorite articles from her blog and she sent me this little gem. Enjoy!

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, then smile politely when I'm done. Lucky all of you.

Teralyn (that's me!) recently critiqued my historical fiction YA, and she 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 there be 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.

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, 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 may be 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 one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with 75 different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion.The Emotion Thesaurus is available for purchase through AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes, and Smashwords, and the PDF can be purchased directly from her blog.


  1. What a great post! Becca makes a great point about conflict and tension not always being synonymous--while they go hand-in-hand, they are two separate (and equally important) elements that we need to include in our writing.

    Thanks for sharing this, ladies!

  2. In the novel Angelfall, author Susan Ee did an excellent job of keeping the tension taut as a bowstring by upping the ante. Just when it seems nothing else could go wrong, it does and the stakes become higher. Tension is so pivotal and now I better go do some re-reading of my own to make sure I've not gotten conflict and tension confused with each other.

  3. Thanks, Ava. I had no idea they were different until I started really researching the two.

    Angela, I'll have to check out Angelfall. I'm always game for a tension-filled read :).

  4. This post helped me a lot the first time you wrote it, and I am delighted to get a chance to read it again. :)

    Thanks Becca and Teralyn!

  5. You made some great points Becca.

    Nice blog Teralyn. :)


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