What's the Difference Between Conflict and Tension?

What’s the Difference Between Conflict and Tension?

This week’s video answers one of your questions about the finer points of distinction between these two important story catalysts.

Video Transcript:

I talk a lot about conflict and tension, because, as we all know, they’re the gasoline in our stories’ engines. A few months ago, one of you asked the very astute question, “What is the difference between conflict and tension?” So today let’s a take a sec to find some answers. I often use the two terms interchangeably, not so much because they’re the same thing—because they’re not—but because they’re kissing cousins that fulfill similar functions within the story.

Conflict indicates outright confrontation. Two people arguing. Two armies fighting. Or even something slightly less aggressive, such as someone who desperately needs money losing their winning lotto ticket. Tension, on the other hand, is what I like to think of as the threat of conflict. You’ll have tension in a scene in which your characters are hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the next artillery bombardment. You won’t have any actual conflict in this scene, since nothing is actually happening to the characters. But you do have plenty of tension because characters and readers alike know something is about to happen.

Think of conflict and tension as pistons, working in concert, pushing and pulling to provide contrast within the story. If you’ve got your conflict going gangbusters in every single scene, you’re going to find yourself in the ironic position of having created a monotonous story. Tension allows you to dial down the excitement and the altercations without losing reader attention. In fact, tension-heavy scenes can often be more gripping, simply because readers know the conflict is coming and they can’t do anything to stop it.

So bottom line: you need to strive to have either conflict or tension in every scene. But recognize the difference, so you can balance and enhance the effect of each.

Tell me your opinion: Does your latest scene feature tension or conflict?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Good video! I think it’s good for writers to understand the difference, and to be able to use it wisely. :)

  2. Great post. I have tension in my latest scene.

  3. @Liberty: These are two terms we don’t always consider past their superficial definitions. But understanding things on a conscious level is always helpful.

    @Lorna: And the plot thickens! :)

  4. Both!! Lol! I see conflict as you do and I see tension as building up between people or circumstance. I try to have both in my current story which is a mystery/thriller.

    I feel readers of mystery/thriller’s desire the build up of tension. I know I do!

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it!

  5. Tension is important no matter what type of story you’re writing. Outright conflict may ultimately drive the story and create plot points, but we rightly say that tension “builds” – not just itself but the characters and the world around them. It provides the opportunity to unveil the workings of the story before the conflict pushes everything into motion.

  6. Tension is found in the subtleties of each scene. I like to include this through subtext. The silent conversation going on between the spoken lines can be riveting.

    Also, when the inner emotions of a character begin to ooze out in their actions, external conflict is not far behind.

  7. Subtext is a huge vehicle for tension. Often, if the problem were stated outright, we’d get a burst of conflict and then resolution. But allowing issues to breed (and brood) under the surface allows that tension to go on and on and on – until the conflict becomes much bigger than it would otherwise have been.

  8. Thanks for the post. One of my recent scenes had neither conflict nor tension, and it was a big red flag that I needed either to change it or to get rid of it!

  9. We all write a few of those now and then. At least, when we know what’s wrong with it, it’s easier to fix or cut!

  10. Very clarifiying! Thanks :)

    Indeed, it´s necessary to master both of them!

    M.

  11. Master them – and you’ll be well on your way to mastering storycraft as a whole!

  12. It´s very good tng to know the difference for a start! :D

    IF writing wasn´t hard, everyone would be doing it, right?

  13. Exactly. And if it weren’t challenging, it would be nowhere near as rewarding.

  14. What a great video. Thanks!

  15. Thanks for watching!

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