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Building Conflict: How to Engage Readers with the Perfect Amount of Tension

Hi Dave,
Do you know what the difference is between conflict and crisis? Taking it one step further, do you know how these two devices can impact your character and the course of your book?

In today’s lesson, we’re going to delve into the writing strategy of building conflict and how it can create the perfect amount of tension for the main character.


What’s the difference between crisis and conflict?

Crisis and conflict are often used interchangeably, but they are different.


A crisis is usually an emergency, an accident, or an illness. It’s something that happens to the character, and it can happen quickly and without warning.


A conflict is a struggle and often a moral one. It can be a struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist, or it can be some other kind of external struggle. It can also be an inner struggle.


Tension is the foreshadowing of a conflict. It indicates that a conflict is coming. It’s like the noise you hear against the windowpane at nighttime when you’re home alone. The hushed moments afterwards as you hold your breath and listen for any sounds that may come next — is tension. While no monster has confronted you yet , it’s the anticipation that creates tension.


+How to create tension in fiction


Create characters that people care about

Your character doesn’t have to be a saint (or a sinner), but he or she should be well-rounded and relatable as we mentioned in Lesson 2: Make Your Characters Sweat .


Even if your protagonist is not particularly likeable, he or she should have something in their DNA that’s relatable to the reader. Give the reader someone to root for, even if it’s the other person in the scene.


Developing characters who people root for will increase the tautness of the tension. Your reader does not want a likeable character to struggle, but struggle he must.


Use dialogue

In our previous email, we talked about how to create tension via dialogue. Pitting your antagonist against your protagonist is a surefire way to create tension because the two generally have disparate motivations.


You can also use dialogue to create a sense of foreboding. A supporting character can threaten your protagonist or vice versa. Your dialogue can be explosive, but you’ve got to structure it correctly.


To create tense dialogue and narrative, use smaller and tighter sentences. Longer, lingering sentences convey a sense of leisure. But short, choppy sentences imply action. That’s because they are quicker to read.


+How to create tension in non fiction

 

In many ways, it’s easier to create tension in novels. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t add tension in nonfiction books, too. Here are the key strategies:


Raise the emotional stakes

In narrative nonfiction, explain what you or the main character will lose if a certain course of action is not taken. For example:

“All I could think was, if I don’t make it to the meeting within five minutes, I’ll miss out on my scholarship — and the location was seven minutes away.”


Play on the reader’s goodwill for the character to create a sense of tension.


Show don’t tell

Non fiction can easily fall victim to expository. While some amount is necessary (as I showed in the example above), you can and should use descriptive language to paint a picture for your reader.


You may be tempted to tell the reader exactly what you are feeling or your protagonist is experiencing. Don’t.


Instead, show what happened and let your readers connect the dots. For example:


I was so nervous when I looked at the list.


vs.


My heart pounded through my chest as I scanned the list.


Which one shows and which one tells? It’s obvious, right? In the second sentence, you’ve given the reader descriptive clues without outright telling them what the character feels. The reader can use these descriptive clues to understand both how the character feels and how the character responds.


Pace yourself

This advice is important in both fiction and nonfiction. Your story should alternate between energy and lull. Just like a rollercoaster, you must build up to the moment of excitement. It’s the ebb and flow that creates tension.


When writing about true life events, take time to establish the scene and the problem. Highlight the key players. Focus on how the other characters oppose or work for the protagonist.


Final Thoughts

Creating tension within your narrative can take time, and is often done or improved upon during the editing process. Start with a solid, “fat” draft, and look for ways to tighten the pace. Also, don’t forget to invest in likeable characters that will drive your story forward.


Until next time!

– Natasa & the team at NY Book Editors

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Elijah

Elijah