Writing Tips & Advice
It’s hard to imagine a novel without conflict, crisis, drama or tension--they are what makes a story worth reading.
Without a struggle, a moral choice, and opposing forces, a story would be nothing but a string of boring facts. If
every scene was peaceful, comfortable and pleasurable, no one would read it.
To make a story interesting, the protagonist must want something. He must have a goal, whether it’s something
physical, spiritual, emotional or intellectual, and there must be roadblocks for him to overcome in order to reach
The story doesn't begin until there is conflict, crisis, drama or tension--they are the driving forces that move the
story forward and entice the reader to keep turning pages.
Include it early and often.
There are two types of conflict, and both can be, and maybe should be, present in your novel.
Internal conflict is the dilemma that the character faces inside of himself and the impact it has on him. Like one
that requires a character to choose whether or not to compromise his ethical standards, as in William
Shakespeare's Hamlet, who struggled with carrying out his father's ghost's order to kill his uncle.
External conflict is the events that the character encounters as obstacles during the course of the novel. Like the
conflict between the man and the fish in The Old Man and the Sea.
One way to introduce conflict, drama, tension or crisis into your novel is to find the main character's greatest
weakness and attack it. Stomp on it. Beat it down. Then kick it. And when you're finished, kick it again one last
time for good measure.
Following are some examples of conflict, drama, crisis, and tension.
Conflict can be defined as disagreement, contradiction, opposition, clash, fight, battle, struggle, strife, controversy, quarrel, discord,
antagonism, collision, incompatibility, or interference.
Examples of conflict:
- Relational - an argument between two people
- Human Survival - a mob of street fighters
- Survival Against Nature - driving through a hurricane
- Social - fighting for one’s civil rights
- Emotional - deciding whether to sue an employer for wrongful termination or let it go.
External conflict (as in the first four examples) forces the character to make choices, and in order to do so must go through internal
conflict (as in the last example).
Choices have consequences, causing more internal conflict. The central focus of a novel needs to be on how the protagonist
overcomes conflict to achieve his goal, whether it’s internal conflict, external conflict or (more likely) a combination of the two.
The protagonist needs to evolve, grow in some way, as a result of the conflict he faces. Otherwise, there is no purpose to the story.
Crisis can be defined as a major turning point in a sequence of events, a condition that leads to a decisive change, an upheaval in a
person's life, or the point at which tension is at the highest.
Examples: a serious car crash, a debilitating illness, loss of a loved one, a house fire, an unexpected divorce, declaration of war.
The crisis of a story is what the reader has been waiting for. Having the crisis occur half-way through the story appears to be most often
practiced. If it occurs too early, the reader will lose interest before finishing the book. And if it occurs too late, there won’t be ample time
to show how the protagonist has changed as a result of it.
Drama is a series of events having an intense emotional effect.
Types of drama include comedic, tragic, social/political, fantasy, surprise, delight, disappointment, and suspense.
Drama may be created through dialogue, internal thoughts or action. Or it may be created by the lack of dialogue, internal thoughts or
action. Drama may be shown by creating a single intense action-packed scene or a series of minor ones. Slowing down action to
create drama can be as effective as speeding it up.
Be sure to include the effect that drama has on the character. If you don’t, it will leave the reader confused or flat.
Tension is defined as mental or emotional strain, intensity, suspense, anxiety, excitement, worry, stress, pressure, or apprehension.
Examples: a hostage situation, rising floodwaters surrounding your car, hiding from a burglar, taking the bar exam for the third time.
Tension is driven by narrative conflict, crisis and drama and is most effective when it starts out slow and rises up to the crisis point of
the story. Here are a few ways to create tension:
- Foreshadowing (when the narrator hints at or suggests something that will happen later in the narrative)
- Withholding information, especially in mysteries
- Creating a ticking time bomb
- Cliff hangers at the end of chapters
- A dangerous environment
- Separation of the protagonist from his comfort zone
- Character isolation
- Emotional loss
- Forceful dialogue
- The search for or discovery of something difficult
- Unpredictable behavior
- Delayed action, slowed pace
- Raising the stakes
- Going deep inside the character’s head
- Dramatic atmosphere and mood
- Implanting flashbacks
- Plot twists
- Playing into the character’s fears
Tension is all about unanswered questions that keep the reader wanting to read further.
Except for science fiction and fantasies, whatever method is used to create tension should be believable. Otherwise, you will lose
credibility with your readers.
"Conflict builds character. Crisis defines it."
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