Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 21, 2024

Beguile Your Readers with Tension, Suspense, and Conflict

Part One

Some of if not the most important storytelling concepts a writer needs to understand are the concepts of tension, suspense, and conflict in stories. Those three things can captivate your audience and keep them turning pages. However, the concepts overlap enough to cause confusion. Recognizing the differences between them can help, but learning to see them in stories, and incorporate them into your own stories will make a difference in reader satisfaction and retention.

The dictionary often rescues a right-word-seeking writer, but it can also be a trickster. That’s because a dictionary defines the word in terms of its usage in a sentence. When we’re talking about storytelling techniques and devices, knowing how to use the word in a sentence isn’t exactly what you need. 


At its simplest, tension is a feeling of uncertainty or anticipation. In both fiction and nonfiction, writers pose questions that aren’t answered right away or incompletely answered questions to introduce tension to their words. The question can be clear, hidden by characters or circumstances, or suggested by the elements of the story. 


Suspense is a feeling of excited anticipation that something risky or dangerous is about to happen. The intensity of suspense is proportional to risk or danger as perceived by either the story character or the reader. It is the risk or danger that distinguishes suspense from tension. 


In How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, the authors give what I believe is the best definition of conflict I’ve ever read. “The idea of conflict can be reduced to the word no.” Someone or something is saying no to your character. Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat, says conflict in fiction means thwarted, opposed, or endangered. 

Conflict happens when a character who has a goal cannot reach that goal because someone or something thwarted her, opposed her, or some element of danger kept her from accomplishing her goal. It is important to note that conflict in storytelling does not have to be an argument, a physical altercation, or some other form of violence. But, worrying and anxiety are not conflict. 

Tension and the Human Brain

The human brain is hard-wired and conditioned to at least attempt to help answer questions. When a reader comes across an unanswered or half-answered question, she can’t help but try to find a response. 

Once she perceives the question, if she puts the book down, her brain will work on an answer. If the question is about a sympathetic character or relatable circumstance, she’ll pick the book up again in order to determine if her answer was “right.”

If the question causes enough tension and is compelling enough, she can’t put the book down but will read the next page or pages for the answer. 

The Effect of Suspense on the Human Body & Brain

To one degree or another, suspense is part of our daily life. We’ve understood that suspense causes observable changes in our bodies for a long time. More recently, neuroimaging studies have allowed us to observe we react to suspense in multiple areas of the brain. Suspenseful stories can ’trigger” the brain to react as if the reader was physically enduring the suspenseful event. Her breathing grows fast and shallow. Her pulse quickens. Her muscles tighten.

Humans and Conflict in Storytelling

We have something of a dual personality regarding conflict. Many of us avoid conflict at all costs. Others of us seem to generate conflict simply by existing. 

Why does this happen? Our brains are designed to protect us. When a conflict threatens us, our bodies release stress hormones to prepare us to act, often called the fight/flight/freeze response. In times of great stress, we will act first and think later. Those who generate conflict have had their fight response triggered. Those who avoid the conflict have had the flight or freeze response triggered. It is nearly impossible to alter our automatic response to conflict.

Just like stories can trigger our brains to “live” in a suspenseful situation, stories can trigger our brains to in response to conflict. 

Every day, real life is full of conflict. Even modern day real life. We read about characters who face conflict because it gives us strategies for facing our own obstacles. It comforts us and it gives us hope that we, too, can succeed despite the obstacles we face. 

While the visual medium of movies makes writing scripts different from writing a novel, both forms tell stories. All stories employ the elements of tension, suspense, and conflict. Using popular movies as examples ensures a greater number of you will recognize the devices with my brief and incomplete descriptions. Be aware, there are major spoilers in this discussion.


A mermaid princess makes a Faustian bargain to become human and win a prince’s love.


Ariel, the little mermaid, wants to be human in order to win a prince’s love but Ursula, the sea witch, wants to add Ariel’s soul to her collection and gain power on land by seducing the prince with Ariel’s voice.


  • Ariel nearly drowns when the sea witch transforms Ariel to a human while she’s underwater. 
  • Outraged at being outwitted, Ursula causes a massive storm that threatens to kill the prince.


  • Will the prince kiss Ariel?
  • Will the prince fall for Ursula, who is using Ariel’s voice to seduce him? 
  • Will Ariel be able to stop Ursula from marrying the prince?


Bored and confined to a wheelchair during a sweltering New York summer, professional photographer, Jeff, spies on his neighbors through his window and enlists his only visitors, his girlfriend and his nurse, to find proof a neighbor murdered his wife.


Jeff’s inner conflict is between his desire to be a photographer willing to put himself in danger for the right picture and his growing sense of what having and not having a long-term relationship means based on his observations of his neighbors. This is also an outer conflict between him and his girlfriend. The other conflict is between Jeff wanting to prove a murder happened and his murderous neighbor wanting to keep the murder a secret.


  • Jeff is helpless to do anything but watch when he sends someone to find proof of the murder. Suspense builds as he puts first his cop friend in danger, then his nurse, and finally his girlfriend.
  • Jeff knows his neighbor, the murderer, is coming to kill him, but unable to get out of his wheelchair, Jeff is trapped and helpless. 


  • Will Jeff break it off with his girlfriend, who obviously wants to marry him?
  • Did his neighbor commit murder?
  • Will his neighbor catch his girlfriend searching for proof of the murder?


This is the story of how PT Barnum, the imaginative son of a tailor, aspiring to be a success and accepted by the upper class, starts a circus starring people with unique qualities. 


The success of Barnum’s circus stirs conflict and judgment with the upper class, who view the circus and the entertainers there as lower class. Barnum’s inner conflict is between his desire to be accepted, his desire to be a success, and his love for his wife and daughters. 


  • When Barnum loses his job and his attempts to be a success fail, he’s unable to give his wife and daughters things they want and need. 
  • Fire destroys the circus building, and we anxiously watch to see who will survive and what will happen next.


  • Will Barnum ever be a success?
  • Will Barnum have an affair with Jenny Lind? 
  • Will Barnum return to the circus?

In a way, how you master the elements of tension, suspense, and conflict in your stories is as individual and unique as you are. Learning to recognize the difference in movies and books will help you recognize those things in your own writing. But there is more to tension, suspense, and conflict. Next month, we’ll dive deeper into those story elements and ways you can enhance them in your work.

Please share an example of tension, suspense, or conflict in your work, a book you've read, or a movie you've watched.

* * * * * *

About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie wrangler. She survived moving seventeen times between kindergarten and her high school graduation. This alone makes her uniquely qualified to write an adventure or two.

Her Fellowship series is a “chillingly realistic” alternate history in 1961 Fellowship America where autogyros fly and following the rules isn’t optional. Books one and two, My Soul to Keep, and  If I Should Die, are available everywhere books are sold online. Book three, And When I Wake, is scheduled to be published in late 2024.

Lynette lives in the land of OZ. She is a certifiable chocoholic and coffee lover. When she’s not blogging or writing or researching her next book, she avoids housework and plays with her two Yorkshire terriers. You can find Lynette online on Facebook or on her website.

Image Credits

Top image by mallgoth from Pixabay

Second and third images by günter from Pixabay

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12 comments on “Beguile Your Readers with Tension, Suspense, and Conflict”

  1. Hi Lynette,

    After reading your post, a movie popped into my mind, "The Night of the Hunter" with Robert Mitchum as the antagonist.

    There's a boatload of tension in that story.

    Davis Grubb, author of the novel, did a fantastic job of terror building. Merely thinking about the story gives me the chills.

  2. Hi Lynette!
    The title of your posts completely grabbed me today. Another phrase a wise old friend told me to keep an audience engaged, was to baffle them with BS!

    Thank you for these insights into building tension in writing!

    1. Thanks, Kris. Hmm. I guess it depends upon what you mean by baffle them...I don't recommend misleading your readers, but if you mean keep them guessing--that's a great way to build tension and suspense.

  3. Great examples.

    *All of these movie screenplays were adapted from other written works by Hans Christian Andersen, Cornell Woolrich, and Jenny Bicks.

    Something you wrote did trigger a plot twist for my current WIP. Thanks.

  4. Nice, useful article. I like the distillation of the three. Now, to burn these into my mind for quick guidance… talk about tension and suspense!

    1. Jerold, it's okay to need to refer back to the definitions and examples. I tend to try to set up those three in my plot and scene plans, but I really focus on them during rewrites. Happy writing!

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