Frank Fiore – Novelist & Screenwriter

February 27, 2010

Creating Conflict and Tension in Fiction

Filed under: On Writing — Frank Fiore @ 11:46 AM

Though I am a novelist, I read very few novels. I watch tons of movies.


Because the basic elements of writing fiction are right there to be seen and used. And one of the most important elements is the use of conflict and tension.  To quote Tina Morgan:

Inserting conflict into your novel is not quite as simple as inserting a fist-fight into the storyline. Conflict in fiction can be as diverse and as individual as you are. It can also be used effectively to heightened tension and increase suspense.”

Analyze a movie – any movie. The best ones that hold your attention are those that know how to put conflict and tension into EVERY scene – even those used for exposition. You know — those boring scenes necessary to get information out.

That was a big challenge for me and my biggest criticism from editors who I used to help write my new novel CyberKill recently acquired by a traditional publisher. (Shameless promotion) So, instead of turning to “How to Write Fiction” books, I returned to studying the movies in my collection. I watched closely and realized that just about every scene had some kind of conflict between the characters or environment or some sort of tension between them. Even some internal tension inside the character him or herself.

Here are some tips from Stacy Verdick Case on how to add tension and conflict to your fiction.

Repetitiveness – Writers want to make sure the reader understands what’s happening in the story. Then make sure what you wrote was clear the first time, instead of slowing the pace by repeating yourself.

Rambling Man – Moving characters from one place to another, can slow the pace of a story. If one scene is in the living room and the next dramatic scene is in a grocery store, the reader doesn’t need to follow the character into the garage, out the driveway, past the church at the end of the block, waving to Mrs. Johnson – You see my point here, right? If there isn’t a horrendous collision that sends your character into a coma, ala soap writing 101, somewhere on the way to the store your reader will lose interest. End the scene in the living room, add an extra line and then begin the scene at the store.

A Whole Lot of Thinking Going On — If your character is having a problem with indecision don’t let them sit around thinking. Get their problems out of their head and into dialog. Better yet, add a scene that shows the characters indecision through their action or inaction.

DANGER, DANGER! – Is your character in enough danger from one chapter to the next? Danger can take many different forms. The easiest and most obvious is the physical danger. Don’t forget to use emotional danger. You as the writer have a moral responsibility to torture these characters as much as you can. Pile on the emotional danger along with the physical and see where that leads you. Moriarity he ain’t! — Your antagonist must be as smart or even smarter than your protagonist to create dramatic tension. If your antagonist is as bumbling as the three stooges then your reader won’t be interested enough to keep turning the page.

The next step is a doozy! — Is your protagonist’s goal clear and are they taking a step closer in each chapter? Think of your story as a rollercoaster. Without the slow climb toward the giant hill and killer loops, the ride wouldn’t be as satisfying. Don’t deprive your reader. Notch them up the hill slowly but make sure each chapter is another step up and not a plateau.

Try it yourself. Pick a movie and see how there is almost in every scene some kind of tension or conflict. This makes the scene interesting to the viewer and, if a story, the reader.



  1. Always the editor, “…some tips from Stacy Verdick Case on how to add tension and conflict to your fiction,” starts with three items on what NOT to do.

    So, can I edit for you? Thanks for the invitation to your forum. Very informative!

    Comment by Martha Skye Martin — February 28, 2010 @ 3:50 PM | Reply

  2. Thx for the offer Martha but I already have a great story polisher.

    Comment by Frank Fiore — February 28, 2010 @ 4:24 PM | Reply

  3. Do you think Stacey would be interested?


    Comment by Martha Skye Martin — February 28, 2010 @ 8:55 PM | Reply

  4. Oops, “Stacy.”

    Comment by Martha Skye Martin — February 28, 2010 @ 8:56 PM | Reply

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