Conflict & Suspense
Stories are built upon conflicts and suspense. Seldom is a single conflict enough. No, we writers (and readers) expect one conflict after another. The suspense of “what next?” keeps a reader glued to the page, or eyes locked on a screen.
Conflict is part of life. While philosophers, theologians, and political scientists debate how to end conflicts, the brutal truth of life is that we all face conflicts. The best stories feature dozens of conflicts, each revealing character traits and plot points.
We tend to think of “conflict” as major confrontations between antagonists and protagonists. The major conflict in a story is the primary plot. However, without the other minor conflicts we could not learn what motivates characters. We also need conflict to understand how characters react to various situations.
As we discussed in “Plot and Story,” the plot of a story can be thought of as a “spine” — it supports the story as a skeleton supports a body. A plot consists of a primary conflict and secondary conflicts. These are not the only conflicts within a story, but they are the conflicts that propel events.
Until a story reveals the primary conflict, readers search for the who, what, and why of the story. The writer foreshadows these elements, planting the seeds of a plot. Characters are introduced in the early scenes and their situations are described. Finally, a major conflict appears, a catalyst for the plot, and the why is revealed to readers.
The basic chart of plot structures appears in “Plot and Story.” Not every story follows the well-known three-act structure, but readers and audiences rely on that formula. As readers start a story, they instinctively look for the seeds of a plot. Changing this structure risks confounding readers.
Beyond the primary conflicts that are most familiar, a good writer deals with any number of secondary and tertiary conflicts within a story. These conflicts give rise to subplots, acts, chapters, and scenes. Each unit of story contains a conflict, which transitions into yet another conflict.
Great writers are fascinated by the inner struggles of individuals. Writers tend to be observers, constantly wondering why people make certain choices and interact as they do. If you want to write realistic characters, study social dynamics and personal ethics. Any time two people interact, there are choices at work.
Novels are particularly good for exploring inner struggles. The inner thoughts of a character can appear within the text, exposing how choices are made. As a writer, you decide whether to expose the motivations and inner struggles of characters through their thoughts or through their actions.
An inner struggle might be an ethical dilemma, a choice between two terrible options. Another common inner struggle is the choice of loyalties. Is a character loyal to people or ideals? How does the character choose which people to help first? We all face similar decisions, but in a story the decisions have greater consequences for characters.
We assume we know right from wrong, but are we always certain? What does a character do when confronted with those gray areas in life? These inner struggles define a character for readers and audiences.
Every character has basic needs, though some perceived needs are best described as desires or wants. Basic needs range from food and shelter, the most basic of human needs, through abstract needs such as love and acceptance. Writers look for conflicts between individuals or groups, based on the needs of the characters in a story.
Beginning writers tend to favor clearly delineated good and evil, but conflicts over basic needs tend to be “gray areas” and wonderful for character development. Two groups fighting to survive or maintain a way of life are not necessarily moral opposites. Unfortunately, the men and women struggling see the competition as evil. This is wonderful for writers, however.
The truly great conflicts are based on needs. Consider history. Countries compete for natural resources, land, and money. Ancient peoples fought over water and hunting grounds. Sometimes the leaders of nations or groups might be evil, but are the individual soldiers? Are the citizens? These are the questions that make stories of basic needs captivating.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow’s article “A Theory of Human Motivation” appeared in Psychological Review in 1943. Maslow developed a “needs-based” pyramid of human motivation based upon his observations of people. Needs start with those things essential to life and culminate with an almost “spiritual” self-knowledge.
Physiological Needs: Physiological needs are those things required for life: air, water, and food.
Safety Needs: Once basic survival seems secure, attention turns to safety and security. The most basic safety need is shelter from the elements. Eventually, safety includes social order and the protection of communities.
Social Needs: Humans seem to have a need for friendship and social connections. This need for social constructions might be a result of “social evolution” — a realization that communal hunting and protection were more effective than isolation.
Esteem Needs: The need to feel important appears only after groups and communities form. Within a group, individuals seek recognition. The group validates the individual, through intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Intrinsic esteem is “self-respect” and “pride.” Extrinsic esteem includes titles and rewards for working within the community.
Self-Actualization: What makes self-actualization interesting is that no one completes this level in Maslow’s hierarchy. Once our simpler needs are met, we begin to search for meanings. This level includes philosophy and religion.
A worldview represents a philosophical, political, or religious belief system. People tend to believe their worldview is logically or spiritually sound — it is the “right” way to view existence and humanity. When two people or groups differ, you have rhetorical and sometimes violent conflicts.
The most violent conflicts tend to involve politics and religion. Political intrigues, such as those provided by British history, are interesting tales. Wars based on political beliefs are often civil wars. Civil wars create an opportunity to explore family loyalties, regional differences, and personal ethics.
Humans seem to have a basic need to believe in the supernatural and the divine. Religious worldviews seldom tolerate competing views. Any challenge to doctrine is a challenge to the gods or deity of the faith. Religious leaders tend to vilify opponents by linking them to Satan, demons, and whatever dark powers they believe exist.
Emotional Powder Kegs
Emotional powder kegs exist within any group of people. A lot of people are volatile by nature, while others are volatile in certain situations. Love and hate are volatile emotions, for example. Relationships have all manners of emotion, ranging from moments of irrational passion to jealousy. The conflicts are not about basic needs, worldviews, or anything so easily defined. Instead, human emotions create the conflicts.
Families are constantly dealing with emotional powder kegs. Consider teenagers, with their impulses and confusing emotions. Young adult literature uses these emotions to explore family dynamics and maturing. Literature can explore these emotions without being “preachy” to teens.
Some people are simply unstable. Workplaces usually have one “trouble maker” with issues. This person might not have any logical or easily understood motive, yet the person is not evil — merely unstable. Most of us have met these unpredictable personalities. In literature, these characters can be used to unleash other conflicts.
Bad to the Bone
Sociopaths and monsters, both human and not, are bad to the bone. These characters are beyond reasoning and logic — they simply are what they are. The conflicts between good and evil can be interesting, but often lack depth. The other forms of conflict must carry the story; people want to know why things happen and “just because” can be a boring explanation.
Suspense leads readers and audiences from one scene to the next. Sometimes suspense is the result of a conflict, but not always. A writer should create situations with suspense, leaving the reader wanting to know what happens next. Effective suspense works when the reader cares about characters and what those characters experience within a story.
Emotions on Edge
Readers should be emotionally invested in the outcome of a scene. Characters need to seem real enough that readers and audiences care about them. As a result of this attachment, the emotions of readers are “on edge” during a suspenseful scene. A writer wants readers to be concerned about the fate of characters.
Suspense works when there are doubts about the outcome. While readers know most “good” characters survive tests, there has to be a hint of doubt. Consider a series of stories; you know the title character cannot die or “lose” in the end, but you need to have doubts or the stories do not work.
The characters also have doubts along the way. They wonder how they can prevail against the odds. The emotions of characters lead to inner struggles and conflicts. Suspense produces doubts, which result in yet more conflict.
A wild ride is a series of scenes that “rise and fall” with suspense. There is a pattern to suspense in storytelling:
- The Build-up,
- The Ticking Clock, and
- The Surprise Twist.
The build-up is the collection of events and conflicts leading to a larger event, with its outcome in doubt. An effective build-up increases tensions and fears.
Pressure & Ticking Clocks
Suspense increases when there is a ticking clock adding to the pressure on characters. People hate deadlines, especially when there is a visible clock ticking away the time remaining. Horror stories, techno-thrillers, and most mysteries have ticking clocks of some manner.
Right when characters think they have conquered the cause of suspense, there is often another surprise or twist. This is the unexpected plunge at the end of the ride. Characters are faced with more problems, stress, and fear. The choices made at this point lead to the next series of events. Best of all, the choices made at the moment of surprise reveal the true natures of characters.
For suspense to be meaningful within the larger story, there must be clear consequences to decisions made and the actions taken.