Conflict and Sustaining Suspense
stood on the wet paving, his arms limp by his side, his
jaw hanging in horror, as he peered through a crack in
the curtains. Before him a man crept towards the figure
of his wife as she lay on the sofa.
"Leave my wife alone," his mind screamed
silently. His mouth formed the words but no sound would
On the sofa his wife smiled and opened her arms
invitingly. Dan did not notice his car keys drop from
between his numb fingers. They landed in a puddle at his
feet with a dull jangle. At the sound, the stranger
turned toward the window. Dan's heart skipped a beat as
he recognized the swarthy features of the man inside his
He wondered how hard it would be to murder his best
Did that little excerpt leave you wanting more? I hope so
- that was the point.
Conflict is the driving force behind all good fiction.
Without it, there is no story. The good news is, creating
conflict is much easier than you might believe.
Many new writers believe that adding conflict to a story
is as simple as inserting violence into the plot line.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The conflict in
the example above is only present in Dan's emotional
state. Physically, he has not moved from the window.
Let me give you an example of writing without conflict.
arrived home from work. He stepped out of the car and
hurried up the drive to escape the rain. Through a crack
in the curtains he spied his wife awaiting his arrival.
She was curled up on the sofa, a serene little smile on
her face. His car keys fell from his grasp and he stooped
to pick them up, before hurrying into the house.
Now, tell me - would you like to see 400 more pages like
Did you happen to notice that Dan's point of view is
exactly the same in both examples? He is still outside,
peering through a crack in the curtains, watching his
wife on the sofa. The difference is, I have created
tension and suspense by adding emotional conflict about
what Dan is seeing and feeling.
Also in the first example, I have added the hint that it
is raining. This is to introduce a sense of physical
conflict. Dan's first impulse should be to run into the
house. He ignores this impulse and endures the physical
discomfort, because he is emotionally preoccupied.
In the second example, there really is no reason for the
reader to want to continue. Nothing special or unusual is
happening to the characters. Nothing untoward is going
on. Where is the point in continuing to turn pages?
In the first example above, Dan is trying to deal with
the conflicting emotions of watching his wife with
another man. The final line, however, introduces an
element of risk. Morally, murdering a man is
incomrehensible to most people. And yet, faced with a big
enough emotional dilemma, Dan considers the risk. Most
importantly, we touched on a nerve inside Dan that shows
the reader why he is acting and
feeling the way he is.
Inserting conflict for the sake of it becomes pointless
unless the character is facing a certain degree of risk.
In this scenario, Dan could be imprisoned for the rest of
his life if he proceeds with the intent of murder. The
situations and feelings that your characters must live
through should still feel believable to the reader.
If I had written that Dan simply walked into the house
and punched his friend in the face, the risk becomes
non-existent. Dan has nothing to lose (except maybe his
wife) and the reader has no reason to continue reading.
Most people can relate to Dan's feelings of helplessness
and hopelessness while he stares into the window. This
situation also encompasses some peoples' deepest fear, so
the suspense is more poignant because of this.
But, even though Dan is contemplating murder, most people
can empathize with him, because the dilemma he is in is
one that people can relate to.
Imagine how you would have felt if Dan had raced inside,
thrown off his coat and joined in with trysting pair? The
conflict is diffused, the empathy is shattered and the
reader is thrown off balance.
When creating a scene, bear in mind that your readers
want to see the protagonist win. But there is no point in
winning at all if the stakes were never high enough to
make them care about your hero in the first place.
Okay, Dan's wife is having an affair with his best
friend. Is this enough conflict to keep a reader turning
pages in anticipation for 400 pages? Probably not.
Sure, Dan is contemplating murdering his best friend. But
he hasn't actually done anything. He's still staring into
the window, remember? Is this enough to keep a reader
enthralled for another 400 pages? I doubt it.
Once the initial shock of the first conflict is over, the
reader is going to want fresh conflict to keep the
It's time to raise the stakes.
rolling boom of thunder heralded a flash of lightning and
the rain gave way to a barrage of stinging hailstones.
Dan shook his head, his daze lifted, and backed away from
the window. He ran through the blinding hail back towards
his car, his mind working furiously. He had always kept a
small gun in the glove compartment, but he no idea
whether or not it was loaded. A quick check reassured him
that it was.
He swallowed down the tears that threatened to overcome
him at the thought of shooting the two people he loved
most in the world and ran back to the house."
So now Dan is no longer simply contemplating murder. He's
really going to do it! This forces the reader to start
asking questions. Will he do it? And if he does kill them
both, will he get caught? How will he ever escape a
double homicide charge?
Not only does this increase the tension of our little
story, but it throws the reader into a kind of dilemma,
too. Is it possible to still feel empathy for a
protagonist who is about to become a cold-blooded killer?
Your reader will simply have to keep reading to find out.
Once Dan kills his wife and best friend, where does a
writer go from there? Once the trysting couple are dead,
then what? Of course, Dan will need to contend with
escaping the long arm of the law, he'll have to face his
own conscience ...
Or we could lead the reader into a situation that is even
more menacing than the first.
crept into the living room, arm outstretched, gun
wavering uncertainly before him. With an effort, he
stilled his shaking hand and took another step into the
room. The entwined couple on the sofa had not yet noticed
his entrance. He took a deep breath, steeling himself
against the nausea that bubbled up from the pit of his
stomach and poised his finger over the trigger.
"... and so, darling, if you push him down the
stairs, it will look like the perfect accident."
"Will you help me with the... you know... the
"Of course. No one will ever know. I'm too high up
in the force to be questioned about an investigation like
Phew! Just when the reader thought it might not be okay
to like a homicidal husband as a protagonist, it turns
out that his cheating wife and best friend are plotting
to kill him anyway.
The problem is, he knows that they want him dead and he
can't go the police - not now that we know the friend is
a member of the police force. Who would ever believe his
story over the word of an officer?
Is it likely the reader will continue to turn pages to
find out how he manages to beat these odds?
Creating conflict should be as simple as continuing to
ask yourself questions during every scene - and then
forcing yourself to be honest about the answer.
about the actions of your characters
Is your hero reacting in a realistic way to the conflict
you have thrown at him? Would he really do that?
about the situations you have written
Would he really go and get a gun?
Is the situation really desperate enough to contemplate
about the continuity
Does this scene move the story forward?
Should I stop the story to describe every piece of the
scenery to my readers so they get the mental image
Is a scene showing Dan sitting on the loo for forty
minutes, humming the theme song to the Simpsons going to
increase or decrease tension?
most importantly, ask questions about your readers
Why should the reader care what happens to your
Why should the reader keep turning those pages?
Why would the reader want to read what happens next?
Copyright Lee Masterson. All rights reserved.
"Conflict in Fiction" by Tina Morgan
Lee Masterson is a freelance writer from
South Australia. She is also the editor of Fiction Factor
(http://www.fictionfactor.com) - an online
magazine for writers, offering tips and advice on getting
published, articles to improve your writing skills, heaps
of writer's resources and much more.