Friday, February 4, 2011

Conflict, Tension, and Stakes on Every Page

Conflict, Tension, and Stakes on Every Page

funny-pictures-cat-does-not-want-to-get-neuteredThis post was inspired by these blog posts:
The Literary LabLies You Believe
Victoria Mixon5 Writing Rules You Should Break

There has been some question about what the statement “You must have [conflict, tension] on every page [of your fiction manuscript]” means. I want to present my view on this, and hopefully demonstrate my argument as to the truthiness of this statement.

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing: There doesn’t “have to” be anything on any page. If you want a recipe on one page, a description of a setting sun on another, or an author’s treatise on the basics of fly fishing on another, go for it. I’m just going to demonstrate why generally you should have more.

First, some definitions for this argument:

  • Conflict – A character has wants or needs and faces obstacles to fulfillment of these. These could be internal, such as the sometimes opposing need for love and autonomy.
  • Stakes – The possible outcomes, good or bad, of a situation. Note that these also can be internal, like self-worth vs self-loathing.
  • Tension – The doubt as to the outcome of a given situation, coupled with the reader’s desire to learn the outcome of a given situation.

My first posit is that all scenes contain conflict, stakes, and tension, on every page. The question really is, is the level of conflict, the depth of the stakes, and the degree of tension sufficient to keep a reader’s interest?

Let’s use a quick example of two teenagers, Mary and Sue, who have met to go to a movie:

Mary: Hey, let’s see Swords of Flame!
Sue: Cool! I’ve been dying to see it!
Mary: Let’s go!
Sue: Awesome!

It’s a simple scene. The conflict is almost non-existent: they agree. The stakes are low: the movie might suck. The tension is low: they are excited. The major question I have for you right now is: do you care what happens next? Did we even need to show that they agreed to the movie, or should we just fast-forward to the movie, or even later?

Now let’s take that simple scene and ask ourselves: what can I do to increase conflict, stakes, and tension? For conflict, we’ll get them to disagree (which is one of myriad ways to introduce conflict. Conflict is not always argument).

Mary: Hey, let’s see Swords of Flame!
Sue: No, you promised that we’d see Runes of Ruin!
Mary: But Jesse tweeted that he was going to Swords, and I replied. We have to go.
Sue: But I told you that my cousin Ralph is in the credits. We have to see Runes!

The conflict is obvious. But now, there are stakes. Sue has a familial connection with Runes, and feels an obligation. She also feels that Mary betrayed her, and wants Mary to keep her word. But Mary’s friend Jesse is going to Swords, and she wants to make a connection with him. For tension, hopefully there’s a interest in the reader in what happens next. Does Mary apologize for changing her mind? Do they go separately? Does this lead to more conflict between the two?

What I want to state is that there is not a binary there-is-or-there-isn’t conflict/tension on every page. There probably is some. The question is really how much? Can you increase it? Do your lower-tension scenes truly contrast with your higher-tension scenes?

I’ve heard it said, “well the reader needs a break. Not every page needs to be high-tension.” Yes. Not every scene is “defuse the bomb in thirty seconds or we all die.” But if you go on and on with low-tension scenes without conflict, then you really must ask yourself, “who is going to find this interesting?” The next question to ask yourself is “why should a reader care about any of this? Why should they keep reading? What’s going on that’s entertaining? Is there sufficient doubt as to the outcome, and are some of the outcomes pretty bad?”

It kind of goes to the heart of why you are writing this in the first place.

The reason readers read fiction is to find out, “what happens next? Is all the crap the character is going through going to be worth it?” The way to achieve this (among other ways), is to always consider the conflict, stakes, and tension level of every page, and increase it as much as you can.

For an exercise, take a look at any random page of any published novel (except for the last few pages where everything has been defused and random backstory prologues) and see if you can identify the conflict, stakes, and tension. Let me know what you find in the comments.


  1. "The reason readers read fiction is to find out, “what happens next? Is all the crap the character is going through going to be worth it?” The way to achieve this (among other ways), is to always consider the conflict, stakes, and tension level of every page, and increase it as much as you can."

    See, that's just one type of reader faced with one type of book. It's not a universal at all. What does the reader of "The Dream of Scipio" want? What does the reader of "Tristram Shandy" want? What does the reader of Virginia Woolf or Mary Miller or Alice Munro want? Not, surely, to see conflict resolved. Fiction is a big world, with all sorts of things on the pages.

  2. It's showtime,[Grace]thought.
    The door swung open. Jada grinned from ear to ear and shouted, "Ta da!"
    Grace just stared.
    Jada's hair was different. The color the length, the cut - everything about it had changed.
    It looked exactly like Grace's.

    Tim Downs, Head Game, p. 126.

    I haven't read this yet, but on almost every page -- just like you said -- there is some sort of conflict.

    Great post, Andrew. I'm going to take a look at my stuff for this!
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  3. This discussion is making me think differently. I would have agreed that every page needed tension, at least to a small extent, but now I can recall several passages that I have read over and over again simply for the quality of the description, where there is no tension at all. The page unit might be the deal-maker or the deal-breaker. I don't necessarily need tension in every paragraph, but a page without it might feel slow.

  4. I tend to agree with you, Andrew. I was surprised at the antipathy I saw for this. I love beautiful writing, but even the most beautiful writing in the world doesn't sustain my *interest* forever. (I might keep reading to appreciate the artistry, but that's a different experience/activity.)

    Keep in mind that even character-driven fiction needs tension: will she change or won't she?

    I wonder if this comes down to a "commercial"/"literary" divide.

  5. @Scott: I don't think your comment is actually unfair, and there are always exceptions. I'm talking about commercial fiction. But to support my argument, if the reader doesn't want to find out "what happens next" then why turn the page? Duty? Homework assignment? The fact that the reader turns the page is evidence enough that he wants to. If there's a lot of flat narrative description, you may find that reader flipping pages faster and faster.
    I think readers do expect resolution. That doesn't mean they get the resolution they want.
    Take Paranormal Activity I. I think the viewer wants them to escape and they never do. But the conflict is resolved. But the resolution of conflict is usually more conflict. The best books are the ones that leave things hanging, making you wonder what's going happen now, and damn that writer for making me care!

    My question to you is, do these examples invalidate the guideline, or in general do you feel that conflict etc is a good thing? I just don't get your point. Yes, there are flat passages in every book. But in every chapter? Every scene? Or are you just scouting out the occasional exception?

    @Raquel: Nice example!

    @Domey: I'm not saying it has to be every page. I'm just saying there are 10 times more reasons to justify a page with tension and conflict than a page without. But there are valid reasons to not have them. I guess.

    @Jordan: I'm with you. I feel like this is more a "commercial fiction" axiom. This is one approach to writing a "can't put down" book. Maybe someone wants to write a "go ahead, put down" book.

  6. Jordan: There's a lot of character-driven fiction that doesn't involve character change. I think the commercial/literary divide is a big part of it. A great deal of literary fiction has nothing to do with character change, goals or "stakes" as understood in commercial/genre fiction.

  7. Andrew: I think that the world of fiction is a lot larger than you might realize. I'm talking about fiction in general, not about commercial fiction, which I don't read. I'm talking about thousands and thousands of books, not a few exceptions here and there.

    Let's draw a parallel with music. One doesn't listen to a symphony to find out "what happens next" in the way you mean, so much as to experience the beauty of what's next. One doesn't walk through a garden to see what's next, not in the sense you mean. Architecture is not about "what's next" either.

    As I say, there are a lot of different types of readers and writers, and your rules don't apply to all of them. Page after page of beautiful description (Balzac, or Proust) is not "flat description" and beauty for its own sake is reason enough to turn the page, to read more beauty.

    "The best books are the ones that leave things hanging, making you wonder what's going happen now, and damn that writer for making me care!" is a true statement for you, but not for all readers. Clearly I come to reading for different reasons than you do. But the sort of narratives you describe are "flat" to me because of their predictability and overall sameness. Explain to me how "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" works. Explain to me how "Cities of the Red Night" works. I could go on for a very long time.

    But this is coming down merely to a difference in taste, I think. You and I read different books and are, I imagine, generally ignorant of each other's favorite books. I'm willing to bet that the number of books that don't operate according to the rules you propound would amaze you, and you'd probably dislike all of them. Which is fine, but you should be aware that the world of fiction is, as I say, a really really really big place.

  8. @Scott: Well, I actually do agree with you. I guess I can't really imagine liking a book where I didn't feel compelled to turn the page.
    For me, "story" is about a character who experiences trials. If I wanted vivid description I could read a travel log (which can be very literary and tell great stories). If there's not a character who's trying to change their fate, I don't know what would interest me.

    But I do feel that my desires for story reflect most readers who spend money on books. I'm willing to be wrong about it, in which case I'll fix my manuscript to reflect it. (another topic for another day ;)

    My question to you is, if there isn't much at stake, if there isn't much doubt to the outcome, if there's not a strong conflict, then what in your opinion would make that book good?

  9. Andrew: Well, right now I'm reading "Molloy" by Samuel Beckett. It's a character study, an old drunken Irishman who's wandering over the countryside (or he's remembering doing so). There is nothing at stake; he's merely lost in his memory. Nothing is at risk. We know at the beginning of the book where he ends up. There is no conflict, nothing to overcome. What he do get is essentially one unbroken, 200-page paragraph of all the things that Molloy chooses to tell about himself (and endless diversions where he admits that he might not remember anything at all accurately and he discusses the operations of memory and the loss of memories). He's not a likeable character at all and he's not doing anything except telling us about how he's not doing anything and can't really remember anything and maybe he's making it all up and maybe he's not but really how could it matter anyway. And that's it. That's the book. It is fascinating, immediately engaging and you're carried along page after page by the sheer force of Beckett's language and minute observations about memory and identity and how all of it might be false. It is a work of great beauty and ugliness and you can start and stop anywhere and it doesn't matter at all because "before" and "after" don't matter at all. This is a famous book by a famous writer and it's brilliant and it expands the possibilities of narrative form and is all about what it means to be a human, for better or worse. It is more interesting than any adventure novel I've read.

    As I say, there are many different types of writers and readers. I am compelled to turn the pages of "Molloy" to see what Beckett does next, not what the characters do next. You and I have disagreed in the past about the meaning of "story" and this is just a continuation of that disagreement, I think. Perhaps you're right about "most readers," but that wasn't how you framed the question. I don't read most books! I'm not saying you're wrong about the type of books you write, but I say you are wrong when you try to make it into a universal. The most common men's name on Earth is "Muhammed." That doesn't mean that one must be named "Muhammed" in order to be male. There are lots of other names.

  10. I should also add that "Molloy" is really funny, if you get Beckett's black humor.

  11. @Scott: Whenever I hear that name I think of "Quantum Leap" and picture Scott Bakula.
    Dude, even from your description and vague reviews on, I can tell what's at stake: the man's memory, his reason for existence, reality itself. Huge stakes.
    I read the first couple pages on Google books and he establishes the stakes right away, like any good author. Then I want to pull my hair out from reading stream-of-consciousness style writing.
    I read ahead and saw scenes with tension and conflict, uncertain outcomes. I don't see how this book is an exception to what I've said. (I can only get up to pg 36)

    Reading "If on a winter's night a traveler" I clearly see the tension is wondering what the hell the author is up to. Witty self-indulgent commentary is certainly fun to read, but then conflict creeps in and interest is captured. But the other conflict is between you (the reader) and the author (the narrator). As opposed to playing with characters, he uses 2nd-person narrative to play with the reader directly. The stakes aren't up-front, but the fact that there are stakes are implied by the acts of secrecy.

    Still not convincing me. But I'm not disagreeing with you either, and I've probably moved closer to your definition of "story" lately (but I forget what exactly your view is).
    Honestly, I do feel it's universal. But I do acknowledge that there is a wide variation in importance and it depends on genre and the type of story.

  12. Andrew, I think you're going to label anything that catches a reader's interest as "conflict." Which is fine, but that's changing the argument and I'm sure that if you asked Beckett about stakes, he'd laugh at you. One of the principal themes of "Molloy" (and most other Beckett) is that there is no ending, no resolution, no meaning at all. It's all just meaningless middle, world without end.

    I also cry foul over "the tension is wondering what the hell the author is up to." You could say that about any book at all without actually referencing any of the text. Secrecy doesn't imply stakes, it just implies that there are things hidden from the reader. You keep changing your definition, dude. Which is fine, if that's broadening your writerly pallete. But these aren't books where a character is put on trial, as you put it earlier.

  13. Scott, we really need to meet for beer sometime, as I can see how we could argue for hours about just about everything. :)
    (remember I could only get a few pages off of Google Books)
    By secrecy I meant the part about exchanging briefcases seemed secrety and made me wonder what was going to happen. No one "exchanges briefcases" just for fun. The stakes are being caught or not.

    I'm not changing my definition as much as trying to explain it in different ways. Tension is not knowing what's going to happen but wanting to. If the author does that through wit or humor or misdirection, that's fine. In these cases the reader is caring about the author/narrator and wants to see how their issues are resolved (even if they're not).

    You could say that about any book at all- only the good ones :)
    And they read like trials to me, albeit unconventional ones (once again...only a few pages read)

  14. A story isn't always about conflict for me. Hmm, maybe that's not the right way to say it.

    If every page has something dramatic on it, I get overwhelmed. I guess I'm a reader like Scott; having something to think about can be as appealing and having something to resolve. Some scenes (or pages) are about subtle set up, and conflict in that section could send the wrong red-herring message. Or a page of deeply emotional tourmoil perhaps wouldn't involve conflict, but is essential for character building. Sometimes its that lack of conflict that has me turning the pages.

    I see where you are coming from also though. As evidenced by this discussion, there are many different types of readers, and what they want to get out of any story.

    On the concept of the reader wanting to know what the author is up to however, I think if I wonder about the author at all while reading the story I'll be pulled from the story. Unless I'm reading a memoir, biography, or true crime novel, where the author is a much a part of the story as the characters are.

    Great discussion topic.


  15. @Donna et al:
    When I say "conflict", that does not in any way imply action, drama, intercourse (you know, dialog), or even interaction. A single character standing alone doing nothing can still be in conflict.
    A page of deeply emotional turmoil is 100% conflict the way I see it. Conflict can be internal, two needs which when one is met, the other cannot. Which need wins? Conflict.
    Donna, you talk about Author Intrusion all the time, and Scott's examples were almost entirely AI (he'll probably disagree) so I can't help but think about the author since he's speaking directly to me (2nd person narrative).
    But I will agree that different people like to read different things. Scott is like someone who likes to listen to experimental jazz and I'm someone who listens to pop music. What works for pop doesn't work for jazz and vice-versa, but guess what? They both use scales and notes and rhythms (and pauses where nothing is played).
    I still stick by what I said in the blog: nothing "has to" be on any page. Scott's provided plenty of examples that demonstrate this effectively. All I'm saying is to take a look at what you have, and if you're not satisfied, consider upping the conflict/stakes among other things.

  16. I haven't read the comments here, but it looks like they are pretty in-depth. I don't feel like arguing about any of this either. Let's just say that everyone writes differently, reads differently, and there are different genres for a reason. I've read plenty of great fiction which does not have tension on every page - not even close, not even a percentage, yet I was enthralled because I wasn't reading just for plot or character entertainment.

    "...The reason readers read fiction is to find out, “what happens next? Is all the crap the character is going through going to be worth it?” The way to achieve this (among other ways), is to always consider the conflict, stakes, and tension level of every page, and increase it as much as you can...."

    That's not true because that's not why I'm always reading fiction. It's a reason why I read a lot of fiction, yes, but not all of it.

    Thanks for this post, Andrew. I think you have some really great points here, and it's fun to see this from different perspectives. If you put tension on every page of your novels, I'll be they are intense reads! Hope I get to read one someday. :)

  17. @Michelle: Thanks for stopping by (and starting this discussion)!
    I hope I tried to qualify most of what I said. I simply mean that it's one approach of many.
    And it describes one goal of many.
    Once again I want to reiterate that conflict and stakes can be internal where the character doesn't face outward threats.
    Kinda curious as to what fiction you read has little tension but keeps you enthralled. I'll take a look, sounds interesting.

  18. Andrew, I know very well about internal tension. I'm a firm believer that fiction doesn't work unless there is internal tension. Fiction that works can always be role-defined more than plot-defined, if that makes sense. I should do a post about that. Thanks for a great post here!

  19. @Michelle: Cool, looking forward to that! :)


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