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Tension and conflict

April 18, 2009

I think today I’ll post one of those pretentious “I’m gonna teach y’all how to write” blogs.  This isn’t because I’m a master of the craft.  Far from it.  It’s also not because I know more than anyone out there.  There are at least thousands (probably more) who know more about writing than I.

But this is one of those muddy areas that trip up beginning writers and where, by giving my own examples, I can either help those falling on their faces in this particular bog or someone can comment and show me the light and clear it up for me if I have it wrong.

So it’s either a pretentious teaching blog or a seriously confused cry for help blog.

Let’s find out which. 🙂

A lot of beginning writers are confused by books they read which tell them that every page should have tension and conflict.  Usually they take that to mean that someone needs to be getting killed, maimed or at least bloodied a bit on every single page.  Even when a child and parent are having breakfast?  Of course not.  But that situation can still have tension and conflict.

“Tension and conflict” doesn’t necessarily mean high tension and conflict.  What the books are saying, and rightfully so, is that every page should move the story forward.  This can be a shootout, characterization, dropping clues, etc.

For instance:

“Hey, Bill.”
“Howdy, Ted.”
“Whatcha up to?”
“Just gettin’ some money.”
“Crazy weather we been havin’, huh?”
“Yep.”

If you read all of that, I commend you.  No tension, no conflict. Let’s inject some:

“Hey, Bill.”
Bill turned from the ATM and barely avoided letting a grimace show on his face as his boss approached. He got enough of that haughty gasbag during the week without having to deal with him on the weekend. “Howdy, Ted.”
“Whatcha up to?”
I’m at a friggin’ ATM, you idiot, what the hell do you think I’m doing? “Just gettin’ some money.”
Bill tried his best to convey a tone that would push Ted away faster than a gale from a hurricane. There’s no way he wanted to look into his boss’s face after what he’d found out on Friday. The fecal matter would hit the whirling blades on Monday but Bill wanted it to be a complete surprise and, so, had to make nicey-nice no matter how much it made him want to vomit.
“Crazy weather we been havin’, huh?”
“Yep.” Why wouldn’t he go away? Bill had to suppress a vindictive smile as he thought about just how long Ted’d be going away for come Monday. Served the bastard right.

Granted, this isn’t my best work, or the best example in the world but I think it shows the difference between small talk for the sake of small talk and small talk involved in a scene that moves the story.  The first example gives the reader nothing to care or wonder about.  The second, at the very least, makes the reader wonder what Ted did, what Bill found out.  It’s also more obvious exactly how Bill feels about Ted (plenty of conflict in that relationship).

So, basically, we’re just trying to make sure that every page is integral to the story.  No page gives the reader a good reason to stop reading.  Of course, you could write a James Bond book and just alternate sex and violence every page.  😉

I’m kidding.  Really, I am.

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