Conflict, Tension, and Stakes on Every Page
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!
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.