Conflict & Tension

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RSchibler
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Conflict & Tension

Postby RSchibler » Thu Dec 28, 2017 6:06 am

I have been working on imbuing conflict and tension into my scenes and stories. There was a blog post, by Matt Dovey I believe, talking about how every sentence should be jam-packed with conflict. Conflict comes up again and again as a fundamental element of excellent storytelling.

Is it still conflict if the conflict is between the reader and the scene, and not the POV/MC? If the MC were completely comfortable, say, participating in a ritualistic murder, but the details and setting were gruesome or disturbing, is that sufficient? Or would it be better written from the perspective of the victim, for example, or does the MC need to feel some conflict about it? (Hypothetical scene, here, I’m not giving away any plot points) If the MC isn’t feeling any tension or conflict, is that still a flop even if the scene itself is tense? Any good examples of writers/stories that do this?
Discussion welcome. Thanks all.
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Re: Conflict & Tension

Postby kentagions » Thu Dec 28, 2017 8:37 am

Conflict derives from opposing forces, usually in the form of an obstacle to character goals.

Communication is about shared meaning, which, for the purpose of fictional conflict, means that a reader will feel greater dramatic tension when they feel an emotional connection to the struggle. So in a sense, there must be conflict between the reader and scene, but only as it affects the MC.

For example, in a dystopian universe (Speculative fiction is all dystopian), the setting is constructed to make the reader uncomfortable, whether the MC is comfortable or not. Obstacles are designed and placed between the MC and her goals that specifically bother the MC [MC is an emotionally abused little scullery maid (setting that MC isn't necessarily uncomfortable with, but the reader is). Every little girl wants to be a princess (shared meaning) and is supposed to hate crawly things (shared meaning/obstacle), so the little girl must kiss the frog (conflict) to break the curse placed on him].

As real girls move away from a predilection for becoming princesses, the story loses conflict because it has less shared meaning. Similarly, crawly things are thought of more kindly, so the visceral impact of kissing a frog is lessened.

Construct an MC who has hangups that current readers can relate to (shared meaning). Make her likable by having her do things that most readers agree make her a good person (shared meaning) (In the Turkey City Lexicon: Pet the Dog). Give the MC a strong desire to attain goals that readers can relate to (shared meaning). Audience relatable conflict then flows naturally when obstacles that exploit her hangups are placed between the MC and her goals.

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morganb
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Re: Conflict & Tension

Postby morganb » Thu Dec 28, 2017 9:39 am

I have to disagree with the notion that every sentence must be jam-packed with tension. Certainly there will be periods of high tension. However, the reader will also need periods in which he or she can stop and catch their breath, otherwise a writer runs the risk of exhausting his readers. There are always exceptions, of course. Tension will abound in flash fiction because there's so little time in which to accomplish so much. However, as you move towards writing longer works, there will be periods of tension, periods of introspection, periods of narrative, periods of scene-setting, periods of discussion between characters, periods of goal-setting, periods of discovery, etc.

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RSchibler
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Re: Conflict & Tension

Postby RSchibler » Thu Dec 28, 2017 2:28 pm

morganb wrote:I have to disagree with the notion that every sentence must be jam-packed with tension.


I'd have to look up the exact phrasing, but he emphasized the value of conflict. Tension was my phrasing. It's a good point that the tension should ebb and flow.
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Re: Conflict & Tension

Postby michaeljwyantjr » Fri Dec 29, 2017 8:00 am

RSchibler wrote:I'd have to look up the exact phrasing, but he emphasized the value of conflict. Tension was my phrasing. It's a good point that the tension should ebb and flow.


morganb wrote:Tension will abound in flash fiction because there's so little time in which to accomplish so much.


I think the operative bit here is in the type of story being written. When you're working in <2,000 words, each sentence and word needs to guide you through and toward that conflict and tension. There just isn't any wiggle room.

That said, when you start getting into longer works, specifically novels, that has to loosen up a little, especially in speculative fiction. I'm reading through Dave's "Million Dollar Outlines" and in the "Promising Starts to a Novel" section, he explicitly says you need to setup the novel before going nuts. That's not to say there's not conflict at the beginning, but you get time to build to it.

Anyway...
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MattDovey
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Re: Conflict & Tension

Postby MattDovey » Tue Jan 02, 2018 1:14 pm

Was it this post you were thinking of?

I think conflict between the scene and the reader is absolutely possible. Conflict between what a reader expects, behaviour wise, and what your character is doing, provokes a particular kind of intrigue. Why is this sympathetically-presented character engaging in such an abhorrent activity? I wouldn't is one possibility, how is this person remaining so calm amid all this bloodshed? is another, why is this person so unbothered by the strange happenings around them yet another. It's setting up story questions through disonnance, I suppose, by going against reader expectations.

In fact, looking at it, I think it's just one of the kinds of conflict I called out in the blog post: the tension of a statement that doesn't quite make sense.

Of course, the challenge then is in going against expectations cleverly (e.g. "why is this person chopping people up sadistically" is perhaps more trodden ground than, say, "why is this person going out into sub-zero temperatures in only their pants as if it ain't no thing", or "why is this person digging up a grave while specifically whistling Billy Joel's 1983 classic, 'Uptown Girl'"), and also in balancing not-beating-people-round-the-head-with-it (with the risk of boring people with unsubtlety) against not-relying-on-too-much-shared-knowledge-and-subtle-implication (with the risk that some readers might miss the conflict and thus not be hooked).

The best answer, I think, is why not both? Have that reader-scene conflict, but then have character conflicts too--like an instrument slipping in blood slick hands, or someone making a surprise run for it even if their arm is dangling off. If you're feeling brave you can try and get by on the reader-scene conflict alone at first, but you need to introduce plot or character conflict soon--be it external events or introspection.
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RSchibler
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Re: Conflict & Tension

Postby RSchibler » Mon Jan 15, 2018 11:10 am

Thank you all for the thoughtful responses. (that was indeed the post I remembered) I think the conclusion of "Why not both!?" is where I'll focus with the writing. Low level character conflict in the opening scene, even if not plot level, can compliment the reader-scene conflict until we get to the meat of the story.
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