Tension, Conflict, Suspense: In our own stories

It’s Tension, Conflict, Suspense week.  Let’s see what kind of macrotension questions and conflicts we can come up with for the one-liners we’ve got going.

1. Our human-rights-attorney story:

Set in the mid 1950’s, against the backdrop of the first US Supreme Court case to affirm gay rights, a human rights lawyer joins a wealthy Los Angeles law firm in order to fund his transgender partner’s wrongful termination suit against the federal government, not knowing that the firm’s managing partner is a devil intent on sabotaging the lawsuit.

Our Thematic Premise:

Courage leads to self empowerment;
cowardice leads to disempowerment.

Our Shades of Negativity:

  • Positive:  Empower
  • Contrary:  Undermine
  • Contradictory: Disempower
  • Negation of the Negation:  Use? Scapegoat?


  • Positive:  Encourage
  • Contrary:  Confuse, mixed signals, the back-handed compliment
  • Contradictory: Discourage
  • Negation of the Negation:  Intimidate or Humiliate


Macrotension:  Our main character’s goal is to win the lawsuit, so our story-spanning question is:  Will Hero win the lawsuit?

Section Tension:  We’ll use our shades of negativity to guide us:

Part 1:  Positive — Empower and Encourage

So, our hero’s partner has been wrongfully terminated by the government and has enlisted our hero to represent him.  Hero wants to win this case, but he is out of money.  We also need to get hero into the new firm.  So, our Part 1 question could be:

Will our hero find the money to continue pursuing this case?

Answer:  Yes, but it comes with a price.

Part 2:  Contrary — Undermine and Confuse

So, our hero is now in the firm, he’s got resources, but he’s also got a devilish managing partner who, say, appoints himself as Hero’s mentor.  And maybe we use dramatic irony to show Managing Partner’s evil intentions of leading Hero astray on the case, of undermining his competence and confusing him about the issues.  So, our Part 2 question could be:

Will Hero fall for Managing Partner’s ruse and self-sabotage the case?

Answer:  Yes.

Part 3:  Contradictory — Disempower and Discourage

So, Hero’s facing a major setback and his usual MO is to bogue out when things get rough (he’s a coward, remember, that’s his flaw).  But… by now he’s also learned the devilish truth about his managing partner and maybe by now his partner/client has suffered in a way that empowers Hero to push through.  But, he is reliant on the managing partner and the firm.  He needs their resources.  And maybe the firm starts jerking Hero around, assigning Hero to other cases and making their resources contingent on Hero performing certain tasks, and maybe they eventually just fire him altogether.  Hero’s back where he started, only worse, because now he owes a lot of money for services the devilish mentor insisted on in Part 2, but now won’t pay for.  So the Part 3 question could be:

Will Hero find a way to stay in the game, mentally and financially?

Answer:  Yes, but it comes at a price

Part 4:  Negation of the Negation — Used/Scapegoat and Intimidate/Humiliate

So, maybe Hero has got everything on the line now:  He’s fighting with his client/partner; he’s drinking or using to cope with the stress; he’s mortgaged his house and sold his car and is taking the bus to pay for the trial.  And the only way to get paid back is to win.  Meanwhile, our managing partner has been working for the government the whole time.  Hero and partner/client have a real case and the government was scared, but they got Managing Partner to help Hero sabotage it.  The only way Hero can win now is to prove that the government is currently obstructing justice with the managing partner’s help.  But, if Hero fails, he’ll not only lose the case for his partner and be financially bankrupt, he’ll also be humiliated professionally.  He will have become a pawn in some master plan the managing partner has cooked up.  Talk about scary for our little coward of a hero.  So part 4’s question might be:

Will Hero find the courage and the proof he needs to win this case?

Answer:  Of course he will.

Potential Sources of Conflict:

  1. Man v. Man
    1. Hero vs. Villain, the managing partner of our hero’s new firm
    2. Hero vs. Antagonist, the opposing attorney who represents the government
    3. Hero vs. Ally, the transgender client/partner: even though they’re on the same side, they will probably (and should) fight
  2. Man vs. Self
    1. Belief vs. Truth: The Hero believes that the managing partner is a savior, but the truth is the managing partner is actually a devil intent on sabotaging the lawsuit.
    2. Wants vs. Reality: The Hero wants full control over the case, but he’s actually a peon at the new firm, and he’s subject to the whims of the partners.
    3. Wants vs. Expected: The Hero wants to just let the case go, to dismiss it, to have his partner accept the wrongful termination, and to run away to some faraway land where they can sit on the beach and forget the world, but his partner expects him to do whatever it takes to stand up for him.
    4. Inner Goal vs. Outer Goal:  Outwardly, our hero wants to win the case, but this conflicts with his inner goal of protecting his partner and their relationship.  If they win the case, they’ll likely become poster children for the advancement of LGBT rights.  This will launch them into the spotlight, and the spotlight is hardly ever benign.
    5. Fears vs. Goals: Our hero fears putting his all on the line and failing, but if he wants to win, if he wants to protect his partner, that’s exactly what this case is going to make him do.
  3. Man vs. Society
    1. Hero vs. The Government
    2. Hero vs. The Legal System
    3. Hero vs. 1950’s Society
  4. Man vs. Nature
    1. Los Angeles is in earthquake territory.  Perhaps an earthquake occurs at an inopportune moment.
  5. Man vs. Fate or God
    1. Nothing comes to mind.
  6. Man vs. Paranormal
    1. Nothing here either.
  7. Man vs. Technology
    1. The transistor radio came out in 1953, allowing you to listen to music–or talk radio?–anywhere.  I bet we could use this as a source of tension and conflict.
    2. Similarly, TV, though invented earlier, became popular and widespread in the early 50s.  The news is full of conflict.
    3. Also, the first computer hard disk came out in 1956.  It’s possible the government had this technology and it could play a part in the evidence at court… or something.

2. Our diamond bullets story:

When his brother’s Pacific Northwest gang develops a diamond bullet that can penetrate bulletproof vests, a scholarship student must decide whether to help his brother avenge the death of their gang-leader father or protect the father of his girlfriend, the Yakima, Washington Chief of Police.

Our Thematic Premise:

Acceptance leads to family;
Revenge leads to loss of family.

Our Shades of Negativity:

  • Positive:  Acceptance or Forgiveness
  • Contrary:  Avoidance or Denial
  • Contradictory:  Revenge, eye-for-an-eye style
  • Negation of the Negation:  Revenge, and-your-whole-family-too style


  • Positive:  Peace or Harmony, Agreement
  • Contrary:  Indifference or Withholding, Reservation, the Silent Treatment
  • Contradictory:  Disharmony or Discord, Disagreement
  • Negation of the Negation:  Manipulation?  Forcing others to agree with you? Tyranny?


Macrotension:  Here, we decided that our main character’s goal was to prevent the killing of his girlfriend’s dad, the chief of police, without his brother knowing he interfered.  So the suspenseful story-spanning question could be stated as:  Will the chief of police die?  Or… Will our hero save the chief of police?

Section Tension:

Part 1:  Positive — Acceptance and Peace

Gang-leader Dad has just died and the Police Chief is allegedly responsible.  Gang and brother want to avenge Dad’s death.  Hero wants to accept the loss of Dad as part and parcel of doing gang business and move on.  So our initial question might be:

Will Hero persuade the Gang to forgive and forget?

Answer: No.

Part 2:  Contrary — Avoidance/Denial and Indifference/Withholding Information

Gang decides to proceed with the killing, and they know Hero doesn’t approve, but they need him to participate (because of the crucible: Hero has access).  So, they pretend his position of peace is okay; they act indifferent; they don’t tell him what’s going on behind the scenes, but they’re setting him up.  Meanwhile Hero is trying to stay focused on school.  So, our Part 2 question might be:

Will Hero avoid becoming part of the plot to kill the police chief?

Answer:  No.

Part 3:  Contradictory — Eye-for-an-Eye-Revenge and Discord

So, Gang recruits hero to kill the police chief.  They walk him through the plan and he fights the whole way.  So, our Part 3 question might be:

Will Hero go through with killing the police chief?

Answer: No.

Part 4: Negation of the Negation — And-Your-Whole-Family-Too-Revenge and Manipulation/Force

Hero has somehow managed to avoid killing the police chief.  But now Gang is pissed.  They decide to go after Hero’s girlfriend too.  And maybe it’s a no-win situation.  Maybe Hero can save the police chief or the girlfriend, but if he saves the girlfriend, it will expose his earlier participation in the attempt to kill the police chief in Part 3, and his scholarship will be revoked.  So, Part 4 question might be:

Will Hero save his girlfriend but lose his scholarship and the police chief?

Answer:  Ooh… wouldn’t you like to know?

Potential Sources of Conflict:

  1. Man v. Man
    1. Hero vs. Villain, his brother
    2. Hero vs. Antagonist, a privileged kid at school, representing that particular society
    3. Hero vs. Antagonist, a teacher at the school
    4. Hero vs. Ally, his girlfriend
    5. Hero vs. Fake-Opponent Ally, The Police Chief
  2. Man vs. Self
    1. Belief vs. Truth: Perhaps Hero believes the police chief is responsible for his dad’s death, but is misinformed, and really one of the gang members, or even his brother, is responsible.
    2. Want vs. Reality: Hero wants to fit in at his school, but he’s clearly not as financially well-off as the rest of his classmates and he has gang responsibilities that prevent him from socializing as much as he’d like.
    3. Want vs. Expected: Hero wants peace, but he also wants to belong, both in his school and in his family, and both systems expect him to take actions that he’d rather not take.
    4. Fears vs. Goals:  Hero fears being alone, being alienated.  It’s also his goal to stay out of the gang’s plot to kill the police chief.  If he helps the gang, he’ll be alienated from his girlfriend and school; if he helps the police chief, he’ll be alienated from his family.  If he tries to do nothing, it’s possible both groups will reject him.
  3. Man vs. Society
    1. Hero vs. Gang
    2. Hero vs. Private School
    3. Hero vs. Law Enforcement
  4. Man vs. Nature
    1. Yakima occasionally gets extreme weather in the form of thunderstorms and floods.  Either of those could become a problem.
  5. Man vs. Fate or God
    1. Our private-school-scholarship-kid Hero is trying to get out of the gang lifestyle, but we could make it seem like it is his fate to be in the gang.
  6. Man vs. Paranormal
    1. Hero’s dad’s ghost?  There are ways you could play this without it becoming spooky and… er… stupid.
  7. Man vs. Technology
    1. The diamond bullets, of course.
    2. Guns, cell phones, GPS, metal detectors, lots of potentially troublesome technology available.

Well, that’s it for me!  How about you?  What sort of tension questions and conflict would you focus on with these one-liners?  And what conflicts are you using in your own stories?  Tell us in the comments!


Lots of fun stuff:  Setups and Payoffs, Foreshadowing and Revelations, Twists.  See you then!

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