Celebrating East African Writing!

Conflict and Tension

Conflict and Tension

Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story: birth, love, sex, work, and death.  -Janet Burroway

Are you wondering why your publisher thinks your book might not sell, even though you have put in the better part of a year rewriting, re-editing and basically losing sleep over your work? Well, publishers look for material that will be appealing to readers. Readers (humans in general) are attracted to conflict and tension in a story.

24 TV Series

That’s why publishers snapped up Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, they could see that the story itself would hold the reader’s attention, and also generate quite a bit of controversy in the media, which is very useful publicity. That’s why the writer(s) of 24 the TV series, and many other films, TV series and so on previously mentioned here are pretty much set for life, unless, of course, drug habits and divorce settlements bring on bankruptcy 🙂

What’s that? Local examples? Alright? Why do you think the John Kiriamiti series were such a hit? David Mailu anyone?

Ah, you want contemporary. In describing the new local TV series, Changing Times, writer George Orido says: Changing Times is a drama about a powerful multinational and the man behind its success. Mr Kanyi, a brilliant businessman and a loving father, has got where he is by being discerning and perceptive. But in an uncharacteristic error of judgment he gets involved with the wrong people.

How much tension and conflict do you read in that? Well, yes, the content and production itself will decide how long the audience will hang on to it, but I believe the point is demonstrated. If you want your work to sell itself, it’s got to be good, it’s got to hold your audience, and yes, your publisher is one of them.

Of course, if you really don’t give a fig what the publishers think, you could always self-publish. But, that’s not the point, right now. The point is, what is Conflict, what is Tension and how do you bring them into your story?

Conflict produces tension that makes the story begin. Tension is created by opposition between the character or characters and internal or external forces or conditions. By balancing the opposing forces of the conflict, you keep readers glued to the pages wondering how the story will end.

Possible Conflicts Include:

  • The protagonist against another individual
  • The protagonist against nature (or technology)
  • The protagonist against society
  • The protagonist against God
  • The protagonist against himself or herself.

Conflict Checklist

Mystery.  Explain just enough to tease readers. Never give everything away.

Empowerment.  Give both sides options.

Progression.  Keep intensifying the number and type of obstacles the protagonist faces.

Causality.  Hold fictional characters more accountable than real people. Characters who make mistakes frequently pay, and, at least in fiction, commendable folks often reap rewards.

Surprise.  Provide sufficient complexity to prevent readers predicting events too far in advance.

Empathy.  Encourage reader identification with characters and scenarios that pleasantly or (unpleasantly) resonate with their own sweet dreams (or night sweats).

Insight.  Reveal something about human nature.

Universality.  Present a struggle that most readers find meaningful, even if the details of that struggle reflect a unique place and time.

High Stakes.  Convince readers that the outcome matters because someone they care about could lose something precious. Trivial clashes often produce trivial fiction.

Build to a Crisis or Climax

This is the turning point of the story–the most exciting or dramatic moment.

The crisis may be a recognition, a decision, or a resolution. The character understands what hasn’t been seen before, or realizes what must be done, or finally decides to do it. It’s when the worm turns. Timing is crucial. If the crisis occurs too early, readers will expect still another turning point. If it occurs too late, readers will get impatient–the character will seem rather thick. -Jerome Stern

Jane Burroway says that the crisis “must always be presented as a scene. It is the moment the reader has been waiting for. While a good story needs a crisis, a random event such as a car crash or a sudden illness is simply an emergency –unless it somehow involves a conflict that makes the reader care about the characters.

Find a Resolution

The solution to the conflict. In short fiction, it is difficult to provide a complete resolution and you often need to just show that characters are beginning to change in some way or starting to see things differently.

There are several ways to achieve this:

  1. Open.  Readers determine the meaning.
  2. Resolved.  Clear-cut outcome.
  3. Parallel to Beginning.  Similar to beginning situation or image.
  4. Monologue.  Character comments.
  5. Dialogue.  Characters converse.
  6. Literal Image.  Setting or aspect of setting resolves the plot.
  7. Symbolic Image.  Details represent a meaning beyond the literal one.

Material borrowed from Professor Dennis G. Jerz’s Weblog.

And now to this week’s readings.

We begin with a continuation from Oliver Mathenge’s From my Mother’s Kitchen: As Muchiri and Wambui rolled on the floor punching each other mercilessly, they hit one of the stools on which the kerosene lamp had been placed.

And then on to Rayhab Gachango’s Karanja and the Bullies: “My name is Karanja. Hi, I come from the virange of Kirika and hi am preased to be here!”

Clifford Oluoch graces our pages this week with another Adam vs Eve Debate, this time about Lies, Lies, Lies: “You will always come first.” Coming first means after his hobbies, career, ‘the boys’ and if he is an alcohol lover – tough luck, after his drink!

We close this week’s reading with Merchants & Gifts by Osas. Reader Advisement – This article contains material that may not be acceptable to all audiences. However, if you choose to ignore it, you will be ignoring the plight of a child somewhere in Kenya.

Would you like your story to feature here, please send in your work to Go here to see submission guidelines.

Do you have any ideas about how to make your weekly reading more fun? Please send your suggestions to today.

Have an excellent week!



This entry was posted on May 24, 2010 by in Writing.
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