Tuesday, January 31, 2023

High School Writing Tip Sheets - Conflict and Tension in Fiction

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For the past few years I have been teaching high school writing in our homeschool tutorial co-op. Having seen several groups of students through the courses, I've noticed some issues and questions coming up regularly. I hope these Tip Sheets will be helpful to my students, their parents, and perhaps to other students and parent/teachers as well.

This week's tips are regarding conflict in fiction writing. Every story needs at least one character, and it needs at least one conflict. If there's no conflict, there's no story, it's just a character sketch or a descriptive essay.

In order to have a story, there must be conflict. That sounds harsh, but conflict doesn't have to be an armed rebellion, gang warfare, or even a prolonged screaming match. Conflict simply means your character is facing some kind of difficulty or opposition on his way to reaching his goals. 

Storytelling is an act of cruelty. We are cruel to our characters because to be kind is to invite boredom. ~Chuck Wendig

The conflict serves a couple of purposes in the story. It highlights the good qualities in the lead character, and offers the character a chance to learn or grow. Seeing the obstacles the lead faces can make readers even more empathetic towards him or her. Those roadblocks that temporarily thwart the character also offer an opportunity for the character to reevaluate the goals. And of course, the conflict creates tension and suspense and moves the story along.

Conflicts can arise in several different ways. Obviously the lead may struggle with another character (an antagonist), but he may also come up against society or a culture, against nature, against technology, or against God or some type of higher power. In some stories, the major conflict is an internal one - the lead struggles within himself. And no matter what the conflict is, most characters experience some kind of internal struggle along the way as they make decisions or respond. The conflict should have an effect on the character or the reader may feel that the conflict isn't important.

Meaningful stories have lots and lots of conflict. If we avoid conflict, our stories won't be meaningful. ~Donald Miller

You can't tell a good story without conflict - the story can't be beautiful or meaningful. We're taught to run from conflict, and it's robbing us of some really good stories. ~Donald Miller

As you write, decide who your character is, what he wants, what he fears, and who he wants to be. And then design a conflict perfect for that character. Fear is a powerful motivator, and using something the character fears is a great way to introduce conflict and build tension. Other often-used ways to get the conflict going in the story include putting the character somewhere they don't want to be; bring a new character to town or send your lead out of town; or disrupt a routine. Anything that puts the lead off balance or in some kind of danger.

The conflict should arise early enough in the story that the reader will want to know the answer to the Major Dramatic Question. That's the question that the plot to the story is built around. It's the question that must be answered by the end of the story. Will Westley and Buttercup find true love? Will Dorothy get back to Kansas? Will John McClane save the hostages?

Storytelling explores the problem with people. Stories without conflict are bad stories that no one repeats. Conflict describes the reality of human life and interaction with others. The resolution of the conflict in which everyone lives happily ever after reflects the human yearning for hope. ~Harry Lee Poe

Tension builds in the story when the reader sees a sense of urgency or intensity. It's related to the conflict and can be low-key like in a sweet coming-of-age story or heart-pounding like in an action adventure story. Tension builds when there's a risk to the lead character, or a risk if he fails. So the risk to the hero in a spy thriller might be obvious, but there's also a risk in that coming-of-age story even though the action may be minimal. Perhaps it's a risk that the best friend will not forgive the mistake made by the lead and their relationship will never be the same. Tension also builds when there's a time limit of some kind, or there's jeopardy. Jeopardy is when the reader or audience sees or sense the danger to the lead even though the lead does not.

If you are working on writing a short story or a scene, make sure you have some conflict to drive the story. Decide what your story's Major Dramatic Question is, what your character wants and what he fears, and then throw suitable obstacles in the way.

Good stories are driven by conflict, tension, and high stakes. ~William Landay

Stories are based in conflict, and when the conflict is resolved the story ends. That's because for the most part happiness is amorphous, wordless, and largely uninteresting. ~Ann Patchett

For more about creating characters in fiction, see: High School Writing Tip Sheets - Creating Characters in Fiction.

Some of this article is based on information in the wonderful textbook Writing Fiction [In High School] from Writing with Sharon Watson. This textbook is the one I've taught from in the co-op for several years, and I highly recommend it.

A previous version of this article was published on Homeschool Coffee Break in January 2022.

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Laura B said...

I work with high school students for speech therapy and this is a great tip sheet! Thanks for putting it together!

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