Tension and Conflict: What are they?

Updated 2.5.20

There are some distinctions among these terms, but there’s also a lot of overlap. In general, the goal is tension, with conflict and suspense each being a way to create tension. Here we go…


“Tension is about delaying anticipation of an outcome,” says Karl Iglesias, with the outcome being the character’s achievement of or failure to achieve a goal.

“Whenever [the character’s] intention [goal] is denied, the effect is tension,” says Ronald B. Tobias.

Tension, says Sandra Scofield, “is caused when a question is raised and the reader’s sense of anticipation is heightened.

And the question, in general, is:  Will the character get what he wants?


1. Macrotension

“Since suspense is the withholding of resolution, you novel must hold a sense of suspense from beginning to end,” says Mr. Bell.

“The dilemma spans the entire script and unifies the conflict,” says Jim Mercurio. “Your ability to delay the character’s ultimate choice creates tension in the story.”

“Once you have an idea of who will drive the story, you want to figure out what your story is about at the most essential level,” says John Truby. “That means determining the central conflict of the story. To figure out the central conflict, ask yourself ‘Who fights whom over what?’ and answer the question in one succinct line.”

“One that sums up all the stakes for the Lead throughout the novel,” says Mr. Bell.  “If you have set up the story with the right stakes–[physical, professional or psychological] death on the line–[then] the big [generalized] question is, Will the character make it out of this alive?”

“All other elements of the plot grow out of this central issue,” says Mr. Kernen.

2. Section Tension

“We want to keep our readers engaged in the action,” says Mr. Tobias, “so we have the main character encounter along the way a series of barriers, which deepen the opposition. Each conflict gains intensity.”

“Your characters should be facing ever-increasing obstacles,” says Mr. Frey, “their problems should be multiplying; pressures on them should always be growing.”

“You must continually test the character through each phase of dramatic action,” says Mr. Tobias. “You must increase the tension as you build toward a climax.”

“The secret is to increase the level of relative tension gradually,” says Mr. Kernen.  “This means that while the story may never produce true fireworks, each plot point increases the tension incrementally so that relative to the plot point before it, the suspense has grown considerably.”

(More on how to make each section (Acts, Parts and/or sequences) of a story more tense than the section before it below, under Rising Action.)

3. Scene or Local Tension

“Each individual scene should have suspense,” says Mr. Bell. “There is something unresolved in the scene, namely the outcome. The character has entered the scene with an objective (and this, in turn, is related to his overall objective in the novel).  He encounters obstacles in the scene, so we wonder if he will come out of the scene successfully or unsuccesfully.”

You can achieve scene tension with “local tension, which,” according to Mr. Tobias, “is the result of a conflict of the moment.  Local tension doesn’t have much of an effect beyond the immediate circumstances that created the tension.”

4. Paragraph Tension

“The smallest unit [not really–see microtension, below] for suspense purposes is the paragraph,” says Mr. Bell.  “Think of each one as having the possibility of withholding information or ramping up tension.”

5. Microtension

This is tension at the sentence and word level.  We’ll look at this more when we get to voice.


Half a dozen masters put conflict this way:  two dogs, one bone.

“The idea of conflict can be reduced to the word no,” says Gary Provost.  “Throughout a story, something or someone is saying no to your characters.  And they’re saying no in the scenes and throughout the story.”

“Conflict is whatever stands in the way of a character achieving her motivation,” says Michael Hauge.  “It is the sum of all the obstacles and hurdles that the character must try to overcome in order to reach her objective.”

Mr. Iglesias agrees:  “conflict [is] the obstacles that prevent the character from reaching the goal.”

As does Larry Brooks:  Conflict is “something that opposes the goal you’ve given to your protagonist.”

“To put it mathematically,” says The New York Writer’s Workshop, “objective + obstacles = conflict.”

But some masters say that objective and obstacles aren’t the only elements.

“There’s a third element which makes the conflict more dramatic,” says Mr. Iglesias, “the unwillingness to compromise.”

James N. Frey agrees:  “Conflict between characters always takes the form of insistence versus resistance.”


1. Man v. Man

“Your protagonist has a goal or a desire to be fulfilled, and there isn another person who is standing in the way,” says Mr. Kernen.

To that end, “don’t ever waste a minor character,” says Mr. Bell. “They can do many things for your novel–add spice, extra beats, comic relief…. And suspense.”

“The more frequently you put one [character’s] agenda in direct opposition to another’s, the higher your novel’s conflict quotient,” says Chris Roerden.

2. Man vs. Self

This could include, courtesy of Lisa Cron:

  • What the protagonist believes is true versus what is actually true
  • What the protagonist wants versus was the protagonist actually has
  • What the protagonist wants versus what is expected of her
  • The protagonist’s inner goal versus the protagonist’s external goal
  • The protagonist’s fear versus the protagonist’s goal (external, internal or both)

3. Man vs. Society

“It is not so easy to turn one’s back on a group, especially if entrenched,” says Noah Lukeman. “The collective approval, identity, and way of life of a group can make it harder to go against than a family.”

4. Man vs. Nature

Such as fog that limits visibility, icy roads that put you in the ditch, water that floods your basement and ruins the costume you’ve been working on for months.

5. Man vs. Fate or God

As they say, man makes plans and God laughs.  Perhaps God’s got a destiny for your character that he just. can’t. shake. Damn it!

6. Man vs. Paranormal

Vampires, werewolves, fairies, ghosts, angels, zombies, etc.

7. Man vs. Technology

This can be as simple and “local” as your cellphone dying or as complicated and all-encompassing as the computer that develops free will and decides to destroy mankind, as in Robopocalypse.


Mr. Mercurio gives us two sources to mine:

First, “[T]he magic in commercial concept-driven [storytelling] is the methodical exploitation of a very narrow what-if premise. The concept of your story encompasses the main elements that demand preeminence and will function as your main source of inspiration for the majority of your dialogue, situations, and scenes. Your concept is the creative but specific cauldron in which you cook up your ideas.”

Second, “Use your character’s dilemma to explore his or her inner thoughts and emotional states to create appropriate conflict,” says Mr. Mercurio.  The conflict you choose should provoke the protagonist by “embody[ing] the competing sides of the dilemma.”


“Once you set up a hero and an opponent competing for the same goal, you must build the conflict steadily until the final battle,” says Mr. Truby. “Your purpose is to put constant pressure on your hero, because this is what will force him to change. The way you build conflict and put pressure on your hero depends primarily on how you distribute the attacks on the hero.”

“Writers,” says Sol Stein, “can sometimes benefit by preparing a list of every obstacle they plan to use in their plot. They then can ask themselves, … Do the obstacles build?  That means as each obstacle is faced and overcome by the protagonist, an even greater obstacle has to present itself.”

One way to approach building conflict is to “think of the outcome of a conflict. There are three possible ways a conflict can proceed,” says Mr. Iglesias.  “A character wins or loses, but tension disappears; the characters compromise, and as you just read, it’s a not an option if you want to maintain interest; or the conflict is aggravated. The latter is what keeps readers glued to the page, wondering how it will all turn out in the end.”

Lajos Egri discusses another great way to brainstorm building conflict.  He calls the technique Transitions.  Basically, in a story, in each act, in each sequence, and in each scene, the character changes from one, usually emotional, position or pole to another position or opposite pole.  But the character doesn’t make this change immediately.  Instead, he moves through a progression of stages or transitions.  Here are Mr. Egri’s examples:

“There are two main poles in every life: birth and death.  In between there is transition:

Birth – Childhood; Childhood – adolescence; adolescence – youth; youth – manhood; manhood – middle age; middle age – old age; old age – death.

Now let us see the transition between friendship and murder:

friendship – disappointment; disappointment – annoyance; annoyance – irritation; irritation – anger; anger – assault; assault – threat (to greater harm); threat – premeditation; premeditation – murder.

Between ‘friendship’ and ‘disappointment,’ for instance, as between the others, there are still other small poles with their own transitions.  If your [story] will go from love to hate, you have to find all the steps leading up to hate.”

Each transition should arise from and result in another conflict.

When building conflict, “be careful not to repeat the same conflicts,” warns Mr. Iglesias. “You must have a constant flow of new information, new conflicts, and new twists and turns.  You want your script to move, each conflict leading to another without repetition, forcing the character to take new actions and overcome more difficult challenges.”


But I still have suspense to do, including a bunch of techniques for creating it–about 26 of them.  Come back tomorrow for Part 2!


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