Thursday, March 5

Day Five: Clarify the Conflict and Tension

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Five of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. This first stage is all about getting the story and plot worked out, and identifying any holes or problems to guide us in our revisions and let us know where we need to focus our time. We’ll be analyzing plot and narrative structure, and making sure the novel is working as a whole.  

We’ve been working hard on the things that move a story forward, and our plots should be tight, with characters who are advancing the story in clear and logical ways. Next, we’ll make sure we’re not making it easy on them, or boring for our readers.

Today, let’s focus on the novel’s conflicts and the tension keeping readers hooked.

Return to your editorial map and look for the scenes that lack conflict.

1. Add or Strengthen the Conflict


Conflict is an often misunderstood word. It's easy to assume it means fighting, but conflict is just two sides opposed to the same goal. It can be adversarial (bad guy wants to nuke the city, good guy wants to stop him) or friendly (sister wants to win the race, brother wants to win the race). It can be different approaches to the same goal between friends, or even conflict within yourself.

(Here’s more on conflict basics)

Look at your first weak scene and ask:

Is someone or something opposing the protagonist? If the protagonist has a solid goal and motivation, but the scene still feels weak, odds are there’s no conflict creating a sense of uncertainty about the outcome. Sometimes the outcome is obvious (the protagonist will make it through the blizzard), so the conflict needs to come from another source. Making it through the blizzard might change the protagonist, or she’ll have to make an impossible decision during that blizzard. Look at the scene and consider:
  • Where does the protagonist make decisions?
  • How can you make those decisions harder?
  • Where might those decisions cause trouble between the internal and external goals (this might apply to all the characters, not just the protagonist)?
  • What unpredictable thing might occur?

Is the antagonist working against the protagonist? In some novels, the protagonist doesn’t know the antagonist is working against her—she might not even know who the antagonist is at first. All she knows is that things are hard and no matter what she does, her plans and goals never seem to work out. If your antagonist isn’t making things harder for your protagonist, take a step back and look at what the antagonist is doing:
  • Does the antagonist have an actual plan, or does he just cause random trouble when the plot needs it?
  • Is the antagonist actively working to stop or hinder the protagonist? How? (Not all novels will have this direct conflict)
  • Are there places where the antagonist’s actions hinder the protagonist inadvertently?

Now go back to the scene and ask:
  • Is there anything the antagonist is doing that would affect the protagonist in this scene?
  • Are there any consequences or effects of the antagonist’s actions that might manifest in this scene?
  • Is there anything the protagonist might do in this scene to cause trouble for the antagonist, either here or down the line?

Are there personal beliefs in conflict? Sometimes the conflict facing the protagonist is an internal one. If the scene contains a step in the character arc, the lack of conflict might be because there’s no moral problem to overcome, or the moral dilemma is too easily solved. Even if it’s not a major moment in the character arc, it might be an opportunity to show that inner struggle. Refer back to your character arc analysis and ask:
  • Can the protagonist be asked to do, or forced to do, something that goes against her beliefs?
  • Can a decision in this scene require or result in a personal or moral sacrifice?
  • Can there be philosophical differences that cause the protagonist trouble?

Do coincidences work to aid the protagonist instead of hindering her? Another reason conflict might be missing, is that the plot just needs to go that way. For example, the author knows the protagonist will escape from jail, so the scene is written as if this is a foregone conclusion. Luck breaks for the protagonist, and even bad luck turns out to be the best thing that could have happened. Put enough of these scenes together and the plot starts to feel coincidental.

This is usually an easy fix—just revise as if the protagonist might not actually succeed here. Think about how the other characters or obstacles in the scene would act/work if they truly were trying to stop the protagonist. This will force the protagonist to work harder to win and provide real problems that feel natural to the scene.

2. Add or Raise the Tension


When a scene feels like nothing is happening even when you know things are, the most likely culprit is a lack of tension. The scene is predictable and readers can guess how it’s going to turn out, even if they don’t know the details. In the most basic sense, tension is anticipation. If readers have nothing to anticipate (good or bad), the scene feels weak and slow.

And that’s the key with tension—it’s all about the reader not the character. The protagonist might have no idea a problem is barreling down on her, but if readers can see it coming, and they know it’s going to affect the protagonist in a way they worry about, then the tension will be high.

(Here’s more on adding tension to your scenes)

Is there tension on every page? No matter how small, there should be something on every page that creates that sense of anticipation. Maybe readers are hoping something good will happen, or fear something bad will happen, or know something terrible will happen and they need to know how the character will react to it—the possibilities are endless. Look at your problem scene and ask:
  • Can you add anything for readers to anticipate (good or bad)?
  • Can you add anything for readers to worry about?
  • Can you foreshadow an upcoming problem?
  • Can you hint at possible problems, even if they don’t actually happen?
  • Can you add tension to the setting or change the setting to a more tense location?

Is there tension between characters? It’s not uncommon to see secondary characters (especially sidekicks) supporting the protagonist in everything she says and does—everyone in the story is on the same page, thinks and believes exactly the same thing, and no one ever disagrees. Or if they do, they’re either quickly brought back on board, or the disagreement causes the character to break from the protagonist (thus removing any possible tension going forward).

Try looking for ways the characters can disagree. People have different approaches to the same problem, and can support each other even if they think the other person is wrong.

A word of caution here—“disagree” doesn’t mean they have to argue or have knock-down drag-out fights. In fact, you usually get better tension when friends and allies have differing opinions and aren’t being antagonistic about it.

Is there tension in the setting? Every horror movie knows how to work this, and there’s no reason we can’t do the same things in our novels. Certain environmental details trigger certain emotions. Try revising the setting or tweaking the descriptions to create a sense of anticipation.

Are there moments when the protagonist is relaxed? Any time the characters are relaxed, that signals readers there’s nothing to worry about. If there are no other indicators of a potential problem, that could result in a lack of tension in the scene. If the scene focuses on relaxing or reflecting characters, try looking for ways to slip in something to make them nervous or anxious.

Is there an unanswered question in every scene? Scenes where the discovery is low or missing are likely to have less tension. Look at the scene and ask:
  • Can you add a question for readers to wonder about?
  • Can you leave an outcome or answer unanswered instead (delay the reveal)?
  • Can you drop a hint?
  • Can you add some odd or unusual behavior on a character’s part?
  • Can something unusual happen that will mean more later?
  • Can an answered question lead to more questions?

After today’s revision session, we should have increased the tension and conflict of our scenes and filled them with anticipation. Next step—making sure all of this matters to both the reader and the character.

Tomorrow: Tighten the Stakes and Consequences

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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2 comments:

  1. Really enjoying the series! I have been reading them and working at a slower pace. So far, this entry in particular has really been a massive help in how to strengthen weaker scenes. I found I had a couple that were lacking in drive but working on one then fixed the other too. Result!

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad it's helping, and has been fun. Take all the time you need, there's no rush at all.

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