Lions and Tigers and Bears! Oh, my! Tension, Conflict, and Suspense – Creating Compelling Stories

One of the most fundamental techniques of fiction writing is skillful creation of tension, sometimes referred to as conflict. Our favorite authors hook us on page one with a character so compelling that we read further to find out what happens. The character is engaging, with likeable traits that endear them to us, even if they have rough edges or find themselves in untenable situations that force a choice, a decision they wouldn’t normally make.

Therein lies a clue to a story that draws a reader in. Tension. Conflict. A mystery, a question, something out of the ordinary, an event that pushes the character out of their ordinariness. Suspense. What happens next? And why does the reader care?

Tension can be internal or external. Events that influence a character’s life are external (think plot). What goes on inside the character’s mind is internal – and don’t we all identify with (and love) characters who struggle with their own doubts yet persevere and triumph in the end? Stories have more depth if the character must face both types of conflict. Literary fiction often focuses more heavily on the internal, while suspense and thrillers lean toward the external, but the very best of any genre incorporates both.

Take some time – ten minutes or an hour – to think about your characters. What drives them? What are their core beliefs? What do they want (both their conscious goals but also their unconscious, deepest desires)? What obstacles exist to their attaining those goals? Can you come up with a Goal-Motivation-Conflict statement for each character? (Below, based on Debra Dixon’s book, Goal, Motivation and Conflict) How about doing this for an internal GMC as well as an external GMC? The best GMC statements pit the main characters against each other on all levels, with a worthy adversary throwing even more wrenches into the works. An extremely successful author friend (Katie McGarry) adds one more twist: in order for the hero/ine to achieve their highest goal (usually the internal, unconscious goal) they must sacrifice the thing that they initially thought meant the most to them.

Fill in the blanks: Sally wants ____  because ____, but ____. John wants ____ because, but ____.

Notice, this looks like the back copy of a book – and it can also serve as the basis for a pitch, either verbal or written. It also serves as a down-and-dirty template for your book, if you write without an outline.

Once you’ve come up with a general idea for your story, you can use this technique for each scene in the book. In each scene, make sure you know what’s at stake for the Point-of-View character. What does the character have to gain or lose? Make it a crucial goal (James Scott Bell refers to it as ‘death’, a risk of personal or professional failure of grand magnitude), then get right to it, using dialogue, action, reaction. Add obstacles, and let the character go to battle.

But the secret to end-of-scene suspense is…to cut away, to leave the scene before ‘the answer’ is revealed. Leave the character in a quandary, the question unanswered. Or introduce a new complication, complete with a hefty cost to the character.

These questions, both at the beginning of a scene and the end, are called ‘hooks’ for an obvious reason. Like fish, we are lured into the story, and get ‘hooked’ so it becomes difficult to put the book down. (As I glance at the bedside clock and mutter Just one more page…, then look up again a half hour and thirty pages later, realize how short on sleep I am going to be, and mutter Just one more page again! Don’t tell me you’ve never done that!)

Other strategies for managing tension include word choice and sentence structure. Choose each word carefully, to reflect the exact mood you’re trying to create. Smooth, languid words setting the stage, perhaps, then more active words leading up to an explosive eruption of emotion or action. Stretched-out, descriptive sentences for the set up; short, fast ones for the pay off.

As with all great writing techniques, there are caveats. Don’t ‘make stuff happen’ just to make stuff happen. The plot needs to unfold in a way that is authentic for the book and for your voice. Resist the urge to overdo. Hooks, suspense, tension, conflict – these can all be very subtle. Trust your reader to understand without spelling it out or hitting them over the head with it.

Tension boils down to posing a question, grappling to find an answer, then ending with another question. Do it enough times, and you have a book – a gripping book that the reader stays up way past bedtime to finish.

And that’s the kind of book you want to write!

About Leslie Lynch

Leslie Lynch writes women's fiction, giving voice to characters who struggle to find healing for their brokenness – and discover unconventional solutions to life’s unexpected twists. She is an occasional contributor to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’s weekly paper, The Criterion. She can be found at www.leslielynch.com and is on facebook and Twitter@Leslie_Lynch_
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8 Responses to Lions and Tigers and Bears! Oh, my! Tension, Conflict, and Suspense – Creating Compelling Stories

  1. Sandy Loyd says:

    Love the post. Lots of really good information. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Leslie Lynch says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Sandy! Glad you stopped by.
    :-)

  3. Leslie, this is so helpful. When I first started learning how to write fiction, this was my number one challenge — I like to create worlds where everything goes perfectly. Oops.

    But the interesting thing was this morning while reviewing my sample non-fiction chapters I was sending to an editor today, I noticed spots where I managed to take advantage of tension and conflict to keep the reader flipping pages — hopefully successfully, but at the very least I’m aware it’s a tool I can try to use.

  4. Leslie Lynch says:

    Jen, this is such an effective tool – and it’s hard (as beginners) to challenge our characters. But that’s what makes the story interesting! Give ’em tough situations and see how they react.

    I’m intrigued that you’ve unconsciously applied the technique to your nonfiction work! I’ve learned something from you! Thank you for sharing.

    • Well, it’s a how-to book – techniques for managing behavior when teaching religious ed. So it’s all about disaster. I noticed that I was naturally setting up the conflict — the problems you face in class — in the opening pages of the book. It’s not suspense they way you have it in fiction. But there’s a parallel — the need to turn the page to find out how the situation will be resolved.

      I did hope to write a page-turner. I didn’t know whether I could or not. But I knew that non-fiction needs to be gripping. So hopefully I’ve done that.

      Wow and talking through this is helping me think about how to organize my homeschooling book (next in the queue on projects to complete.) So, um, thanks!

      • Leslie Lynch says:

        Even if it’s not suspense (as in fiction), nonfiction still has the element of a problem that needs a solution – and in this case, kids come with built-in challenges that can boggle the mind!
        Again, thanks for pointing out a totally different application of this principle that I had not intended. :-)

  5. Adding: And yes. Making the characters in fiction suffer is essential. Hard to do to such nice people, but you’ve gotta do it or there’s no story.

    • Leslie Lynch says:

      So true – but so hard to do! Although the deeper you dig into your characters, the more you discover their flaws, and they just fall right into trouble without much help. The key is discovering where they need to grow, then give them obstacles to achieving that growth. Your job as a writer is to get them to grow, change, overcome, triumph.