Monday, November 29, 2010

Tension and Conflict

Tension and Conflict are arguably the most critical elements for maintaining reader interest in a fantasy story. Sadly, this appears to be my biggest weakness as a writer. For my book's first hundred pages or so the conflict never becomes dire and always seems remote. Well, that's because it is remote. I tell the story using close 3rd, which means I can't show what's happening if the character is not there to see it.

My epic fantasy basically follows this model:

1. Life changing event happens for a character
2. The character must journey to the place where the action is
3. The character arrives and the action really starts

My weakness is in number 2, the journey to where the action begins. Now, writers have always used little plot events to make journeys more entertaining. Tolkien threw in black riders to give real menace to the journey of Frodo and company, and he added in all kinds of waypoints such as Tom Bombadil. My problem is that I absolutely loathe contrived action. I don't like throwing in a band of robbers along the road or other such things, unless it can feel like an authentic part of the story. Also, a band of robbers is just a tiny event along the way and doesn't lend itself to maintaining tension. Black riders who continue to hound you all along your journey do keep this tension, but it's already been done before. For the life of me I can't come up with a similar plot device to maintain tension throughout the journeys of each of my POV characters. I do have little events that happen to them, but as I explained above, they don't maintain tension if they don't follow the characters along their road.

I suppose this is just a weakness I'll have to spend a lot of time working on. My action really takes off once the characters arrive at their destinations, but that does no good if the readers don't read that far. How do you deal with this issue?


  1. Well, think about real life and the small 'crap' that happens that trips up people. What crap can hit your characters that causes them to grow and change?

  2. Oh, I put lots of that in the book. The problem is that this doesn't create lasting, rising tension, or at least not to a degree that readers tend to want. I did this post because a beta readers said she was enjoying the book but needed something more in the beginning.

  3. It sounds to me like you need to make some hard decisions because you can't make readers wait a hundred pages to get to the good stuff.

    And what you think is contrived should instead be blood and bone of the story. A mob of highwaymen can attack the heroes on their journey. Who is to say they aren't part of the arm of the bad guys?

    You have to find a way to connect the dots so that the conflicts along the way relate to the black moment later in the book.

    PS Media res
    Start the book in conflict.

  4. i'm in the middle of a rewrite due to having the same kinda issue... not enough tension in the beginning and middle... just remember when whatever fix-it idea occurs to you, that no addition lives in a vacuum. if you add a character or a plot element or another layer- it often changes a lot of your ms... like the butterfly effect... or at least that's what happened to me. :)

  5. If the protag is a child, their parents would be looking for them. and if they are upper teens to adults it could be a love struck paramour. The paramour character could even be comic relief.

    I am sure both have been done before, but are realistic enough.

  6. Nope, Budd, it's more along the lines of needing to head off to war against a (still distant) invading army. The main characters learn of the coming events in dramatic ways early on, but then they need to journey to the distant places that they need to be, only if I just skip the journey and have them arrive it won't make any sense. The story is more about the characters and their journeys than it is about the invaders themselves.

  7. Well, in my mind, the action that can drive your opening chapters can all be related to your primary conflict. There's any number of ways that conflict can ripple through your world. Has anyone been displaced by an invading force? Are brigands being pushed farther out from the centers of civilization because of martial law? Are advance scouting parties wreaking havoc on the countryside?

    You're right that the early conflicts can't be contrived. But they *can* occur, and they can all be related back to the main issue. If you can weave the threads together elegantly, it'll make your story that much stronger. But the only way to figure that out is to try it and see what works. That's what *I'm* learning right now, anyway. Your milage may vary.

    Keep on keeping on, good sir!

  8. Ted, what about... think about Half Blood Prince and the 'con artists in Diagon Alley'--Rowling wrote in people taking advantage of the chaos elsewhere... rumor mongering, conning--those are realistic co-events with what is happening, and allow for both some action, but also some information transfer about what is going on elsewhere. Perhaps this also creates a shortage of resources so robberies ARE related to the events and it is connected.

    I don't think your book is as slow to get there as you make it sound--they are all headed toward it and there is action along the way, but something like that would help you trickle in the info you need readers to have, also.

    You'll get there!

  9. Is the journey absolutely integral to the story? I mean, what if you could somehow shorten it, perhaps even do some summary narrative, and jump into the action much quicker.

    If the journey itself is part of the overall plot, then there must be some compelling reason for that. And that's the thing you need to sharpen and bring out more on the page.

    Me, I'd just "transition" the journey using a short vignette and get on with the blood and guts of the story.

    My two cents, anyway. :)

  10. If I may...The slowest 'adventure' out there IS LOTR - yes, he threw in black riders etc - but a lot of the time they simply WALK through endless landscapes...and people still consider JRRT the Father of them all...

  11. I'm working on the tension part of both my sci-fi and regular fantasy.

    So, thanks for the post. A lot of good advice in the comments here, and I appreciate the education. I don't know about you Ted; but I got a lot out of this.

    Some excellent writers commenting here that I admire for their skills.

    Good luck with your fix effort. I'm right there with you.


  12. I appreciate all the responses. I do think that at some point after I have completed another novel or two I will need to go back and rewrite at least a part of this first book, keeping in mind the need for more conflict.

  13. You could have them trying to catch the army that has left before them. They need to get there before the battle starts but traveling alone on the road has its delays.

    That is a tough one.

  14. I have a hard time with tension and conflict too (why can't people all just get along? Hehe). Are the protagonists joining an army already set in place, or are they part of a larger force that's on the move as one? Or are they recruiting people as they go along?

    Immediate conflict could stem from places that the antagonising army has already been through, where there is no law and the MCs have to make a tough choice - do they stay and help or press onward? In a place where people have witnessed violence on such a scale, there will be ill feeling towards the 'do-gooders' who refuse to help. With martial law in place, all manner of lowlives would be in place for conflict :)