Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Self-Editing Checklist: Conflict and Tension

"Cinderella woke up one day and decided she wanted to be a princess. So she went to the prince's ball, danced with him, and fell in love. And they all lived happily ever after."

Errr, back it up a minute. What's wrong with this picture? Maybe a lack of conflict?

Can you imagine what the story of Cinderella would be without a wicked stepmother who makes Cinderella scrub and clean until her knees are bare? And who can forget about the evil stepsisters who taunt her whenever they can? Oh, and let's not forget about the lost shoe. I mean, what girl wouldn't be traumatized after that whole ordeal?

Without conflict and tension in our stories, there's no reason to come alongside the characters, to cheer them on to victory, to laugh and cry when they finally fall in love and live happily ever after.

Simply put, without conflict and tension, there is no story.

So now that we've analyzed our scenes until our eyes are blurred (If you're not seeing fuzzy lines yet, read the rest of this series here), we want to take a step back and look at the overarching conflict. Specifically, we want to look at the following components.

1) Does every scene (or even every page) contain enough conflict to move the story forward? It might be internal conflict or external conflict, but either way, there should be no stagnant scenes.

2) Have I embedded conflict that fits within the story, or does it feel contrived? This is a toughie to gauge for yourself and it's where a really good critique partner can come in handy. But if you notice a tension point that feels out of place, you should probably listen to your gut.

3) Have I varied the forms of tension? It might manifest itself through body language, interior monologue, dialogue, setting, viscerals...basically all the devices we've covered in this series. Make sure you're not relying on the same one or two forms of tension. The greater variety the better.

Your homework, should you choose to accept it: Scan each page of your scene or manuscript and mark the points where conflict comes into play. Analyze the device you've used to portray it, and make sure it's natural to the story while also providing variety for the reader.

Can you think of a classic story and rewrite it without tension, the way I did with Cinderella? Do you have any rule of thumb when it comes to conflict and tension in your stories?

This post is part of the Self-Editing Checklist series. To read the rest of the series, click here.

*Arrows photo by Danilo Rizzuti /


Laura Pauling said...

My biggest rule is to try my hardest so there is tension! :)

Casey said...

Tension is a biggee for me and to make sure I have it! But I think I try *too* hard in some cases and thank you for reminding me to vary the tension a bit! It's not all internal and external. I think I get tunnel vision most of the time. :)

Keylocke said...

I learned a lovely trick from published author, Katrina Kittle. She adds a T to the bottom of the page, if it features tension. She also marks a V for an unique visual aspect. The goal is to have a V and a T on every page on average.

I've used this trick when revising.

patti.mallett_pp said...

Thanks for another great post!!! Tension is so important to every story. I promise to work harder at it. :)

Saumya said...

Wonderful post and something I still struggle with. Critique partners help me decide if I've got enough conflict. Raising the stakes, giving the character a lot to lose, is how my current WIP is (hopefully) establishing tension.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Want to know a secret? My first novel had very little conflict in it. I had a woman dying in it. Yep, that was about it. All she wrote. :D

It took me another 3-6 novels to learn to ratchet up the tension. ;)

Great post!
(And Nicole, I like Katrina's method.)
~ Wendy

Keli Gwyn said...

When I first began writing, I didn't understand the importance of conflict. In fact, I had to ditch and rewrite 3/4ths of my story right after my awesome agent offered me representation because I'd unknowingly reduced the tension at the 1/4 point. That experience taught me the importance of conflict--that and reading my CP Jody Hedlund's manuscripts. She's a master at conflict and tension.

Jennifer K. Hale said...

I'm with Keli- when I first started writing, conflict on every page or scene wasn't at the forefront of my editing process. I'm learning so much about how important it is for driving the story! Thanks for this post. I soaked it in. You're a great teacher, Sarah! :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Laura, That's a great rule of thumb! As long as it's natural to the story, you can't go wrong. :)

Casey, I think we ALL get tunnel-vision in our own writing sometimes. That's why a second set of eyes (or third or fourth) is so invaluable. :)

Keylocke, What an awesome tip!!! Thanks for sharing!

Patti, Glad this was helpful! It's hard to make our beloved characters suffer, isn't it? :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Saumya, It sounds like you've got great elements in place to create believable tension!

Wendy, Funny about your first novel. That's why they say to keep on pressing on and write more, right? :)

Keli, You're right. Jody is a mastermind at tension and conflict. And I can't wait to read how you've become a mastermind at it, too, when your book comes out. :)

Jennifer, You're most welcome! It's funny to look back and realize all the things we did wrong when we first started writing, isn't it? That's why we keep at it. At least, if we want someone to hold our books other than our mothers. :)

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Sarah, showing up late today, but this is a great, practical post. I chuckled out loud as I read your Cinderella intro. I'm still learning the fine art of creating tension in my story, but I have a great friend who's taking my ideas and deepening them, including adding tension.

I went to My Book Therapy's Story Crafter's retreat, and Susan May Warren shared the value of determining the stakes in each scene before writing. This is helping me to make sure I've got tension at least in each scene, if not on each page. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Jeanne, I've heard great things about the Story Crafter's retreat. How cool that you got to go!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Great post, Sarah.
I must admit, reading a novel filled with tension is delicious. I flip though pages, stay up late--all the author's fault, of course, and become upset when I reach the last page. Must read more!

OK I'll get busy with my homework now.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Oohhh, great point, Mary! We should all strive to be the author that readers love to hate...and then beg for more books. :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

I feel like Cinderella, arriving late to the ball!
I've learned from Susie May Warren too that it's important not to skimp on tension. To use those zingers that we often avoid in real life. Go ahead and let our characters say those things we won't say.
In one scene in my novel, I originally had my heroine refusing to confront the hero about something--literally keeping the door shut in his face. I was challenged to have her open the door and let the conflict begin. It was a much better scene when the two of them had it out!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Ohhh, I like the sounds of that new scene, Beth! I'm glad you opened the door to conflict. :)

Pepper said...

Great points, Sarah.
You know what - I think that's why I liked Cinderella 3 so much...the conflict escalated TRIPLE and Cinderella grew a tougher spine. She was still sweet and lovely, but determined. Stronger motivations. :-)

Yep, even with Cinderella ;-)