Conflict vs Tension in Storytelling

To make stories more interesting, do you need conflict or do you need tension? Can you create tension without conflict?

I was just listening to the Writing Excuses podcast (episode 18.5, An Interview with Mary Robinette Kowal) and she raised a current thought she was working through on whether it was conflict that made stories more interesting, or was it tension. Can you create tension without conflict? An easy way to create tension is through conflict, so people are taught to add conflict into stories, but should they instead be taught to add tension where conflict is an easy way to do that.

I have been working on my own cartoon (slowly, very very slowly) and reworked a script to add more conflict into it. The overall tone however changed as a result. To me the end result certainly had more conflict, but it had a negative tone as a result. As my person goal was to create more uplifting content, that felt “wrong”.

A part of this may simply be lack of skill on my behalf in crafting stories. I am being too literal. To create conflict, I got the characters to argue or try to trick the other person. It raised the conflict, but it meant every interaction became more negative. It is probably not necessary to go as far. Friends can be in conflict in disagreeing over their favorite ice cream flavor. But another guide was to “raise the stake” to increase interest. A story should be larger than life to be interesting.

So I found the question of are there different ways to create tension other than conflict interesting? I tried ChatGBT to see what it said.

“Yes, tension can be created without conflict in a story. Tension is an emotional state of uncertainty or anticipation that can be created through various means, such as character development, setting, imagery, foreshadowing, and more. Conflict is just one way to create tension, but not the only way.”

Character development can result in inner turmoil without external conflict. They can struggle with a personal dilemma or moral choice. There is still a conflict in desires – wants vs needs, or conflicting desires if wanting to please two different people with different demands.

A setting can increase tension, such as walking through a dark forest. Sinister shadows, strange noises, uncertainty as to what is coming up can create fear which creates tension. (Cue suspenseful music!) There may not be any actual danger, it is just a normal pleasant evening in the forest. It is the unknown that creates the tension.

Foreshadowing is another tool you can use in writing to raise tension. Hint at some event that may occur, again raising fear and uncertainty. “What if I say something and it makes them angry?” One could argue it is the possibility or anticipation of conflict that raises tension.

Creating mystery is one approach I will certainly be using in my series – keeping some information hidden from the audience with only hints so they know there is something they don’t know. Giving hints can also increase audience satisfaction when they think back to a previous event as they realize “oh, that is why” or “ah, I thought that was going to happen”. Predicting something successfully is enjoyable too.

Plot twists are a different form of mystery. The audience has made one assumption, but things ended up going a different way. For example, I still remember one old Anime series I was watching (sorry, don’t remember the name), but it started off episode after episode with 12 bad guys to capture. Each episode caught one more person. Surely episode 13 will be the big boss, right? A double episode! Then half way through the series was a plot twist (quite common in Anime). The protagonist discovered she was actually working for the bad guys! The story changed and she ended up working with the people she was trying to capture. Such reversals can be enjoyable if done well. It keeps the reader on their toes which can raise tension after the twist as all their assumptions are challenged.

Time pressure / urgency can amplify tension. Not only do you have to make a decision where you don’t feel confident in which choice to make, but you have to do it by a deadline. A friend is leaving overseas, a bomb is going to go off, and so on. Is it an example of tension without conflict?

So what really is conflict? ChatGBT to the rescue again!

“Conflict is a struggle or opposition between two or more opposing forces or characters within a story. Conflict creates tension and drives the plot forward by creating obstacles for the protagonist to overcome. Conflict can be external, such as a fight between characters, or internal, such as a character’s personal struggle or moral dilemma. Conflict can take many forms, including man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, and man vs. self, among others. The resolution of the conflict is often the climax of the story and can shape the outcome of the story and the fate of the characters.”

And a lesson here on relying on ChatGBT without using your own brain. Did you notice above that internal personal struggle or moral dilemma was previously given as an example of how to create tension without conflict? Now it’s giving it as part of the definition of what a conflict is!

For me and for my baby steps in writing engaging stories, I have come to the opinion that I want a particular “tone” to the stories I create. What I need to watch out for is to not go too overboard with conflict. Yes, I need to create tension to create interest. But don’t let it take over to the extent that everything feels dark and gloomy. Think about ways to create tension that aligns with the overall feel wanted for the story.

As an example, my episode structure is I am trying to create generally positive content, with an obstacle to overcome, but try to end each episode with a positive atmosphere. And this gets into another interesting technique that Mary mentioned in the episode that was one of her favorites: Yes but, no and. Did the character just succeed at a goal?

  • Yes! But to make it interesting, introduce the next step of the journey they have to overcome (their next obstacle).
  • No! And as a result they now need to try to overcome the challenge in a different way.

More interest can be raised by celebrating (or commiserating) over the result of overcoming an obstacle by introducing the next step on the journey. That aligns with my goal for short episodes. They take me time to complete, so I am aiming for a few minutes per episode, what would normally be considered a “beat” in a longer episode or movie. I also plan to include foreshadowing and mystery by showing something happening behind the scenes to keep the audience wondering / anticipating future events. (This is partly where the title comes from – “[extra] ordinary” – on the surface things appear ordinary, but there are some extraordinary things going on under the covers.)

Bottom line: While TRDs (twists, reversals, and danger) can increase tension, I am not sure that worrying too much whether it was created by conflict or not really matters that much. What is more important in my case is learning how to introduce conflict and tension without letting it overcome the overall feel I am trying to achieve for the series. Recognizing this problem for me is the first step in learning to fix it.

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