Tension in Story: Creating Conflict

Today I want to talk about creating conflict and tension in story, and how “nice” ruins both. I hate nice. I know what you’re probably thinking, “But, Mary, I’m nice and you’re nice and nice is so…nice! Why do you hate it, especially now that you live in the state of ‘Minnesota nice’?” Don’t worry, I think you’re perfectly nice, and this isn’t a veiled complaint about moving to Minnesota. As for me being nice, sure, I have my moments. Thanks for falling for my Internet persona. 🙂

tension in story, creating conflict
“Nice” interferes with creating conflict and tension, which means you’ll probably end up with a boring story.

What I really hate, though, is when a manuscript has a lot of nice in it. The character is succeeding. Things are going their way. We end a chapter on a cozy moment when they curl into their reading nook and all is right with the world.

How nice. How abysmally nice for them.

The Problem with “Nice”

The problem with “nice,” though, is that it doesn’t keep our attention. You know how people sometimes say, when they’re being dismissive of something, “Oh, that’s nice, dear”? Nice doesn’t really force us to sit up and take notice, and nice certainly doesn’t succeed at creating conflict and story tension, pulling us to the edge of our seats.

Sure, we don’t want a character to be dragged through the wringer. Nice things do have to happen on occasion. But last week I was preparing for a workshop that I gave on Saturday at the Loft, and I was going over a story theory that I cover extensively in my book, which I call the Emotional Plot.

Creating Conflict and Tension in Story with Emotional Plot

emotional plot

The gist is a little hard to explain in one blog post (thought I try to do it in a 2009 blog post about plotting a novel). I got into a lot more detail in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Basically, what we’re looking at above is the standard three-act structure but instead of tracking how the plot rises and then falls, we are tracking how the character feels during each step of the process.

And if you’re seeing this graph, you’ll notice that the “Fall” is a HUGE part of it. And it ends in something called the “Rock Bottom.” That doesn’t exactly sound too nice, now does it. Basically, for the majority of your story, your job is to put your character through internally or externally uncomfortable or dangerous situations so that you’re creating conflict and tension in story.

The “Fall” shouldn’t be a complete slide into misery. Like a good snow tubing hill (Am I from Minnesota now or what?!), it should have a few bumps to keep things exciting before plunging again. Allow your character small victories and moments of contentment, then yank the rug out from under them again.

Not Enough Tension? Weed Out the Nice

If your plot seems thick, or your story is lacking momentum, or you feel like wandering away for a nap when reading your revision for the Xth time, think, “Am I being too nice? Are too many nice things happening to this character?” Take an especially close look at your chapter endings. Do they mostly end at the resolution of a scene or problem? (Check out more tips about chapter structure.)  If so, you’re laying on too much “nice” and not succeeding at creating sufficient tension in story to carry the reader to the next chapter.

Not everything can be life-or-death in your story, that’s not sustainable. Redundant writing and pattern, especially when it comes to plot, can lull your reader into not caring. But if you find that you’re running into a lot of “more tension, please!” comments, think of the nicest, coziest moments in your story, and really focus on a way to either cut them down or insert an especially shocking twist after then that turns “nice” on its ear.

Hire me as your book editor so I can help you weed out the nice and amp up the tension.

4 Replies to “Tension in Story: Creating Conflict”

  1. Christina C. says:

    This is a great graphic, really captures in a nutshell both the emotional plot like you say but also how the obstacles have to keep getting bigger (kind of a mirror image of the diagram in your post, like when the emotional plot goes downhill, the obstacles have to go uphill in terms of how hard they are to overcome). The same applies to the stakes, when the emotional plot goes downhill the stakes get higher and higher.

    Great post! Thank you! 🙂

  2. Great synopsis of this part of your book that I just went through yesterday and today. I plotted out my story using your advice and it really helped me see things more clearly.


  3. Hey Mary,
    I subscribe to your ‘Legend of the Fall’ graph and add what I call my double-edged sword. I first serve up a forward cut of trouble, I follow quickly with a backhanded slice of even more trouble. So not only does this bad thing happen, but so does that. Also known as a one-two-punch to keep your protag off balance and on his backside.

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