Please Welcome Mario Acevedo to WITS - he's a best selling novelist and instructor over at the Lawson Academy, so you know he knows what he's talking about! Here he is:
Mario here: I’ve been invited to share a little of what I know about writing tension and conflict.
Let’s first ask ourselves why we read fiction? For a vicarious kick, to get what we usually avoid in our lives: DRAMA.
When we say a story was good drama, that means we got a lot of entertaining tension and conflict.
Tension and conflict, what’s the difference?
Tension arises from apprehension and expectation. We’re given details to set our nerves on edge. For tension to work, there must be a set-up. If you want to scare your reader, there must be a build-up of emotion. Otherwise, when you unleash the fright, there is no context. It would be like randomly mentioning the punch line of a joke and expecting a laugh.
Conflict is the discordance between competing agendas. Notice I didn’t mention ideas. It’s not enough that your characters have different ideas, they must act on them, through an agenda, a plan of action.
A great way to show tension is through descriptions using scene-based imagery. This means that you describe the scene in a way that presents the emotion you want to project.
For example: A woman wears red lipstick. In a comic narrative, you might say her lips were clown red. In another scene, the same woman wearing the same lipstick, the color could be described as blood red. Those simple adjectives can dramatically change our expectations of the scene. One is funny, the other, filled with malice.
Check out this great example of creating tension in The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Here his detective Phillip Marlowe enters the greenhouse of his millionaire client.
The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the fingers of newly washed dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.
Pick out the descriptors: Thick. Wet. Steamy. Larded. Unreal greenish color. Nasty, meaty. Fingers of newly washed dead men.
I don’t know what boiling alcohol under a blanket smells like but I’m sure it’s not pleasant.
What sensation do we get? One of dread. A foreshadowing of danger. It’s a brilliant allegory to the moral cesspool that Marlowe is immersing himself into. We know this is not going to be a nice story with nice characters.
As I had mentioned, conflict implies action. The characters need to have competing agendas. Notice I didn’t say opposing agendas. You could have two characters on the same side (police buddies, for example) and while they may be striving for the same goal, they both have different ideas and methods getting there.
Although I said characters, conflict can be between the internal desires of a character, or between the character and nature (or God or society).
Conflict manifests itself when the opposing characters reveal their agendas, often through dialog. Let’s look at this excerpt from Fated by S.G. Browne.
In cases like this, it helps to get some good advice, and I know Honesty will always be candid and confidential. She’s kind of like a therapist for immortal entities.
Honesty lives on the Upper West Side in a three-thousand square-foot, two-bedroom flat on the top floor of a six story building with a view of Central Park. From the couch in her living room, I can see the North Meadow through the picture window.
“But if I talk to her,” I say, “won’t that encourage a relationship?”
“Is that a problem?” she says.
“Well, isn’t fraternizing with human women against the rules?” I ask.
“Whose rules?” says Honesty. “Your rules? Jerry’s rules? The rules of emotionally unavailable men?”
“Is that a multiple-choice question?” I ask.
Honesty lights up another cigarette, then takes a long drag, leans back in her chair, crosses her legs, and says, “Are you afraid of intimacy?”
The thing about Honesty is that she’s passive-aggressive.
What are the competing agendas? Fate wants permission to have a relationship with a mortal human. Honesty wants Fate to admit to his desires and act on them. We can tell that neither character cares very much for the other.
Here’s a simple exercise that uses internal conflict to establish tension. Write two complementary sentences, one as the set up and the other as the twist that establishes tension.
I am an honest man. But I need this money.
What is the conflict? The collision of two different agendas. One is to maintain your integrity, the other, for whatever the money may bring: food, medical treatment for a child, payoff extortion, etc., What is the source of tension? Our expectation that you are doing something against your principles and that will lead to trouble.
Remember, your readers want drama. Give it to them using tension and conflict.
Twist that emotional knife.
I’ll be teaching a class with the fabulous Lawson Writer’s Academy, Fang It To Me: Writing Vampires, Fantasy, and the How-to’s of World-Building, June 4 - 29, 2012.
The curriculum includes material prepared especially for this workshop by some of the best fantasy writers in the business today: NYT bestsellers Carrie Vaughn and Kevin Hearne; Colorado bestsellers Carol Berg, Jeanne Stein; horror master Stephen Graham Jones; king of the dystopian sci-fi thriller Warren Hammond, plus Jaye Wells, Michele Bardsley, Diana Rowland, Nicole Peeler, Carolyn Crane, Kat Richardson; plus YA authors Jackie Kessler and Mark Henry. This much knowledge might make your head explode!
Thanks for the opportunity. Remember: nothing gets written until you BICHOK--Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard.
Mario Acevedo is the author of the bestselling Felix Gomez detective-vampire series and his most recent novel is Werewolf Smackdown. You may find Mario at his website, his blog (with Jeanne Stein,) and at Facebook.
Stop by and say hello.
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Mario, glad to meet you here at WITS and thanks for The Drama Bomb. Speaking of the style Chandler became famous for, I am currently reading a Jesse Stone novel by his sucessor, Robert Parker (RIP). In another room (I read different books in different rooms) I am reading a gal who puts enough tension and conflict in one chapter to make me need a drink ... Tess Gerritsen. It's fun reading them at the same time, alternating days and loving their styles. Your examples are the things I am looking for 🙂
Mario, I'm a Margie Lawson Fan-Addict and knew you were offering this course, but chose not to register (yet) because the course title suggested it would be paranormal focused. I write romance with suspense threads and heavy humor hits. Of course, there's tension, conflict, differing agendas.
Those examples and your approach have me reconsidering that decision.
In your opinion, is this course for my genre?
Caveat: I forced myself into "write forward" mode on my WIP after giving my inner editor (Gracie) far too much play time in the Act I Sandbox. But, with increased stakes in the remaining outline, the course would give me ammunition for writing the truly intense conflict scenes.
Big decision. Huge temptation. You're planning to offer it again at a later date, right?
Rambling: Thanks for the comments. Love your blog.
Gloria: While the course is about writing fantasy, we'll be going light to dark, humor to horror. As a bonus, not only am I including excerpts from favorite authors, I've asked them to explain what they were trying to project. A peak beneath the Muse's skirt, as it were.
Mario, I love this suggested exercise. I haven't seen it before and it's going to be tomorrow's exercise for me. Thanks for posting.
Richard: The exercise is so simple and effective. Like a shiv.
Great advice as usual, Mario! I love twists and reversals and duplicity. Yeah! Awesome exercise, too.
I second the comment on liking your exercise. It's simple, easy and "very" useful. 🙂
I'm good at tension, but conflict? Ugh. Thanks for the reminder, Mario!
Love your hat! But even more, your tips on tension and conflict are great--and soooo usable. Thanks much.
Mario...great advice! You know, I never realized there was a difference between conflict and tension before, I've always considered them to be the same thing (more or less) until now. Wow, to get the conflict down into two short sentences like that, what a great challenge. Have to try it too now!! Thanks 🙂
And I wondered who was taking the Fang it to me course. Maybe I'll catch you on the next time round.
Karen and Sharla: Glad you liked the exercise. It's the literary version of jumping jacks.
Laura: Conflict in real life, not so good. On the page, it's what keeps us hooked.
Fae: I love my fez, too.
Yvette: At first I didn't know the difference between tension and conflict, either. I always learn something.
A really good way of making clear that conflict requires opposing actions, not just ideas. Thanks!
Lucie: No, thank you for dropping by.
Interesting post. Question: Can you have conflict without tension? What about tension without conflict? Okay, that's two questions. 🙂 I always learn something from WITS.
Marsha: The answer is no to both questions. Why? Because 🙂
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