First, I'd like to thank Talynn for hosting this wonderful workshop and for inviting me to help explain the inner workings of crafting a powerful scene.
Today's lesson is Conflict & Tension.
Thanks to the previous lessons, you've now got a scene that deftly describes the setting, has a reason for existing and is grounded by character motivations. But none of that is especially exciting, is it? Essential, yes. Gripping, page-turning excitement? No. For that, you need conflict and tension.
What is conflict? Anything that stands between your character and achieving their goal. It can be large-scale, driving the entire story, or it can be small, affecting just a scene or two. It can be external, (Man vs. Villain/Antagonist, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. The World), or internal (Man vs. Himself). The point is, without it, your story will flat-line. Conflict is the basis for all entertainment, regardless of medium. For whatever reason, we humans are hard-wired to enjoy it. Just look at reality TV. Its entire existence depends on conflict, and audiences eat it up like a dieting person mows down on forbidden cake.
Alright, let's move on to the example. This is the opening scene to one of my short stories, meant to establish the world, character, and of course, the conflict. See if you can identify what that conflict is.
The sharp raps of the scepter against the Judgment Stone may as well have been the sounds of an executioner’s crossbow; it sealed Amyli’s fate with the same finality. She didn’t want to be one of the Kindred, had never wanted to be one. Her family had forced her to endure the training required of those chosen to interpret the will of the deities. All she had ever wanted was to wander like the many wolf packs, free and wild. Of course, that would have been impossible in any event, for even if she had not been inducted into the Order of the Kindred, there was no escaping the chains that bound her simply as an accident of birth. A princess was never free.
Did you find the conflict? Hint, it's internal. Amyli is being forced to do something she doesn't want to by events out of her control, but the conflict is between her desire to be free and her responsibility to her family and kingdom.
Now, this scene does clearly identify the conflict, but it's also ineffective in making that conflict resonate with readers. Do you care that Amyli doesn't get what she wants? That's she's being forced into a life she hates? Not really. Heck, I don't even care, and she's my character! How do you get readers to care? Well, for starters, don't tell them the conflict like I did. Show it to them by adding tension.
Tension is created by prolonging the resolution of the conflict, building up the anticipation of what's going to happen, hinting that stuff's about to hit the fan. Conflict is what readers thrive on, but tension is what keeps them riveted, dying to know what's going to happen next. It pulls from a similar place as emotional empathy and when done well, is the difference between a reader being fully immersed in your story and merely passing time with it while they wait for the dentist.
So, let's take another look at the scene above but now rewritten to include tension.
The sharp rap of the scepter against the Judgement Stone pierced her like the bolt from an executioner’s crossbow. Silence descended like snowflakes as all eyes turned to her. She could see their awe radiating. Their whispered voices slithered around the room, discussing her fate with a joy she didn’t feel.
She was lucky, they said. One of the chosen.
Disappointment shackled her as she stood, her freedom bleeding from her with every step she took. She had known it was naive to hope the gods wouldn’t choose her, that they would prefer a candidate who actually revered them over one who barely believed they existed; someone devout who hadn’t spent the majority of their training confined in solitary prayer as punishment for multiple escape attempts. But she’d been wrong. Of course, they had chosen her.
As the space between her and the dais at the front of the hall shrank, the Kindred seemed to elongate, looming over her in their multi-hued robes like sinister goblins. She froze at the bottom of the stairs, the overwhelming urge to flee scratching at the soles of her feet. Her breathing constricted as panic clenched its fingers around her heart.
She couldn’t do this. She didn’t want to be a Kindred, slave to whatever fickle deity they had assigned her to.
She had to run.
Did you feel the difference? You don't get the same level of back-story that you did in the first version, (thankfully!) but you can feel her conflicted emotions, feel the tension mounting toward one question-- what's she going to do? That sense of mystery is what will drive a reader to keep reading, and by showing them the conflict instead of simply telling it, you'll manage to engage their empathy as well. Emotional resonance should be the goal of any writer, whether it be in the entire book or a single scene. Conflict and tension are just one more set of tools to help you do that.
Alright, your turn. Take the scene you've been working on all week and see if you can identify its conflict. If you don't have one, find one. Take whatever goal you created and stick an obstacle between it and your character. Once you've got that, add in some tension. If your obstacle is too easily overcome, your conflict won't resonate. Create mystery around the conflict's resolution, prolong the anticipation and really make us feel it. Happy writing!
Kisa Whipkey is a dark fantasy author and Senior Editor of REUTS Publications. To date, she has published three short stories and is currently working on several novel length projects when she can pull herself away from her TV addiction. You can find her snarky commentary on all things storytelling at www.kisawhipkey.com or connect with her on Twitter: @kisawhipkey. To learn more about REUTS Publications, please visit their official website: www.reuts.com