Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Bringing Tension and Conflict to Your Novel

By Cheryl Rainfield

JH: Today let's welcome Cheryl Rainfield to the blog, here to talk with us about tension and conflict (two of my favorite things). she has some wonder tips and examples on how to bring more of both of these to your own stories. She might just be the first person I've ever heard say "I write too much tension."

Cheryl is the author of SCARS (an ALA Top 10 Quick Picks & Rainbow List book) about Kendra, a girl who must face her past and stop hurting herself before it's too late; the upcoming HUNTED about Cassie, a telepath on the run from government troopers who must choose between saving herself or saving the world, and two hi-lo (high interest, low vocabulary) fantasies: SkinWalkers: Walking Both Sides, and Dragon Speaker: The Last Dragon. YA author Ellen Hopkins described SCARS as "a brave novel, a read-in-one-sitting-except-when-you-have-to-put-it-down-to-breathe novel." Cheryl is an advocate for teens who’ve been through rough experiences, especially self-harm, sexual abuse, and queer teens. Trailers for SCARS, her It Gets Better video, and her Reasons Not To Hurt Herself attest to her dedication.

Take it away Cheryl...

Tension and conflict are key to a good story. Without conflict, you don’t have a story. I’m not talking about physical conflict, though you can have that (too much can get boring, though, I think). I’m talking about the main character having an intense need or desire for something, and another character keeping your character from achieving that need. And throughout it all, there should be tension to help keep the story moving forward.

I tend to write with too much tension—or so my critique partners told me for years. High tension is what I know. I used to be so tense that my body trembled constantly on the inside, my breathing was always shallow, high up in my chest, and I was running almost constantly on adrenalin—the result of extreme childhood abuse and torture. It took me a while to learn that readers needed moments to breathe, moments of lightness, to help them be able to hear and stay with the story.

I start SCARS with tension and conflict:
“Someone is following me.” I gulp air, trying to breathe.

Carolyn leans forward, her face worried. “What makes you say that?” There’s a hesitation in her voice that stings me.

“You don’t believe me!” I spit the words out at her, then look away, twisting my hands together to keep them from trembling.

“I didn’t say that. I don’t know enough about this yet to know what to believe. Why don’t you tell me about it?”

So you can go tell my parents?

But she won’t; I know she won’t. Client-therapist confidentiality, and all that. And I trust Carolyn; I really do. But does she trust me?
-Scars, p. 7, Cheryl Rainfield, WestSide Books, 2010.
And I keep the tension and conflict going, the needs that drive my main character Kendra.

But most writers seem to have the opposite problem—not putting in enough tension and conflict to keep and engage the reader.

So how do you inject conflict and tension into your manuscript? Here are some things that may help:

1) Have your character *need* something, and want something intensely. Then have another character prevent her from getting it—not for the sake of preventing it, but because they want it, too, for a different reason or in a different way.

2) Keep having the main character try and fail to get her goal (until the climax at the end).

3) Raise the stakes throughout the novel. Make the obstacles the main character meets increasingly harder.

1) Bring in emotion. Really get into how your character feels and why. Remember a time you felt that emotion, and write from that place. Also write emotion and body language that you’ve observed (though coming from your own emotion is stronger).
For example, in HUNTED I show both emotion and reaction that I know personally:
I draw my breath in so sharply my chest hurts.

Mom glances at me. I force a smile, try not to let the fear show.
-Hunted, Cheryl Rainfield, WestSide Books, Oct 2011, p. 3
and also observed emotion:
“Patrol,” I say softly to Mom. “Just keep driving.”

Mom nods grimly, the knuckles of her hands bone-white, her eyes as wide and as scared as I feel.
-Hunted, Cheryl Rainfield, WestSide Books, Oct 2011, p. 7
2) Bring in body sensations tied to the emotion. Notice how you feel in your body and what it does when you feel specific emotions. Put in some of those details.

3) Use sensory details to increase the tension (or decrease it). What a character sees, smells, tastes, hears, and feels (tactile) can all be used to create a mood and enhance emotion.

4) Use setting to enhance the mood of your scene, to increase tension (or decrease and soothe).

5) Break up your chunks of description, setting, and character thoughts and observations—they can slow or stop a story. Sprinkle details throughout action and dialogue.

6) Shorten your sentence length and use more broke up language at high points of tension, and use longer, more languorous sentences for decreased tension and moments of calm or relief.

7) Put your character in danger emotionally, physically, psychologically, or have her feel in danger or threatened (such as rocking her core beliefs).
I also think that for tension to work, the reader has to care about your character, has to empathize with them. If there’s just tension and danger, but no emotional connection to the character, it can feel empty. So try to make sure your character is one readers empathize with.

Tension and conflict can make a story really work. They help a reader care about what is going on, and want to see the resolution. I think that a good story should have both tension and conflict (and, of course, rest periods). I hope you find the balance you’re looking for in your own manuscript.

About Hunted

Caitlyn is a telepath in a world where that is illegal. She is on the run from the government troopers, trying to stay hidden and alive--and trying to help make the world a better place for others with paranormal talents.


  1. Yay, another tension article!

    I'll probably need to inject some more into the NaNoWriMo scene I'm working on right now. Time for some more sensory and reactions. I wonder what the gangster smells like...?

  2. Great ideas. I also like the premise of your book. I've added it to my Want To Read List.

  3. C0, good luck!

    Leanne, thank you (smiling at you).

    Sharon, I'm so glad you'll check out my book; thank you! (beaming)