What is the Difference between Conflict, Tension, and Suspense?

Character vs Character

Within the context of a story, what is the difference between conflict, tension, and suspense?

This quote from James Scott Bell emphasizes the importance of conflict:

“We start to care about characters when trouble—or the hint of it—comes along, which is why, whenever I sign a copy of Conflict & Suspense, I always write, Make trouble!

The Essentials

Conflict influences tension and suspense.

  • Conflict results from opposing forces. For example, character versus:
    1. Character
    2. Nature
    3. Self
    4. Society
    5. Supernatural
    6. Technology.
  • Tension occurs as readers anticipate more conflict.
  • Suspense grows as the conflict remains unresolved, and readers wonder, What happens next to the lead character?

In other words, without conflict you can’t have tension and suspense.

Conflict & Tension Checklist

Conflict’s Functions

External Conflict

The external conflict represents the problem the main character wants to overcome. As a result, conflict moves the plot forward. For instance, the external conflict draws protagonist’s attention toward the internal conflict. Above all, readers want to know how the protagonist will resolve the problem.

Internal Conflict

The internal conflict is the wrestling match within the character’s mind. Because of this inner turmoil, the character struggles with thoughts, choices, speech, and actions. Emotions resonate with readers, conveying the story’s theme through realistic behaviors.

Change Catalyst

For example, conflict increasingly frustrates the protagonist’s efforts to accomplish a goal. As a result, that frustration increases the lead character’s awareness of the need to change.

Reader Engagement

Readers engage at the intersection of conflict, stakes, want, and need:

  • Firstly, a conflict blocks hero’s resolution of goal.
  • Secondly, stakes spur hero to pursue goal despite conflict.
  • Thirdly, hero’s misbeliefs drive want and behaviors. 
  • Fourthly, and most importantly, hero’s need blocks change.

Add Sizzle

Conflict engages readers’s emotions. Moreover, they get caught up in the lives of characters. In conclusion, add sizzle with conflict.

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