Tension and conflict are both key in storytelling. After all, with no conflict or problem–even a small one–is there much of a story?
Where conflict is some kind of problem your characters are trying to resolve, tension is what keeps readers turning the page. If your conflict is the big battle, the tension is the moment right before, when both protagonist and audience know something big is about to happen.
If you need to add more tension, consider the following.
1. Give characters opposing goals or plans.
Characters are people, and people have different goals, desires, and motivations. This means your characters are going to disagree with each other, sometimes in big ways.
Maybe your protagonist and best friend agree on the conflict they need to overcome, but the tension rises when they have drastically different ideas of how to move forward. This makes things tense, difficult.
2. Raise the stakes.
Your characters are probably going to try and fail several times throughout your novel. Use these failures–and the potential consequences–to raise the stakes.
What happens if the character can’t reach their goal? What happens if they fail this time, early in novel? If they fail later, closer to the climax, what are those consequences?
Stakes really boil down to one question: what’s at risk if the character(s) fail?
3. Add both internal and external conflict.
External conflict is pretty simple, but it’s the internal battle characters fight that keeps many readers hooked. Your character is probably grappling with hard choices and vulnerability. Let readers see this.
Does your character struggle to trust themselves? Do they struggle to trust others? Is there some kind of anxiety or fear that’s been holding them back? How do these internal struggles show up when faced with an external problem, like getting a flat tire or fighting an evil mage?
4. Use subplots to add more conflict.
Novels aren’t typically as simple as all characters working together toward one single goal. Life isn’t that simple; multiple problems usually come up at once.
Writing a fantasy novel? Don’t just focus on the Big Bad they’re fighting. Maybe they’re struggling with their feelings for their love interest–especially if that love interest isn’t exactly their good friend.
If your characters are solving a mystery, don’t just focus on The Mystery. Is the best friend detective duo struggling with their friendship right now? Maybe they’re clashing over how to solve the case, or they start arguing about an old disagreement that never really got resolved.
Subplots give us a break from the Big Problem and show us the complexities of characters.
5. Add time limits.
What’s more tense than a character trying to solve a problem in a limited time frame? Add time limits to problems your character(s) must solve, and be sure to include consequences.
If your characters need to pay a ransom, give them a deadline. What happens if they don’t meet the deadline? Does the kidnapper threaten to take action?
If your characters need to stop the evil king, do they only have a few days’ window to do so? What happens if they don’t stop him?
They can come up against other obstacles as they try to meet this time limit: a flat tire, can’t get cash to pay the ransom, severe weather stops them from travelling to where the evil king is. These smaller obstacles paired with the known time limit will keep readers on the edge of their seats!
Tension should ebb and flow.
Those five tips are helpful to add tension and conflict, but remember to let tension ebb & flow. There will be naturally slow periods in any journey. These can be interesting without being boring. Tension doesn’t just come from action scenes but also the build-up beforehand. Characters having difficult conversations, figuring out what’s at stake, and dealing with the side plots may all be ‘slower’ scenes but are still important!
Good luck and happy writing!
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