Dramatic Tension (Story Engineering and Physics #8 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story PhysicsLife is conflict. The very act of birth is one of the most physically and emotionally taxing events in human existence.

And we spend the rest of our days resolving conflict.

That’s a good thing. If you don’t resolve the conflict between the current state of your stomach and the desired state of your stomach, before long, you’ll be facing a more powerful conflict. If you don’t resolve the conflict between your current emotional state, physical state, plane of existence, and the ones you desire, you’ll die or hate life.

Struggle is neither good or bad; it’s what we struggle for, with, against, toward, which determines the character of the work we do.

Conflict & Dramatic Tension at All Levels

“Stories need conflict!”

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard that in a writing class or read it at your favorite writing blog.

But what does it mean, exactly? Does a good story hinge on anger and violence, “conflict” in the sense of fussing and fighting?


Let’s look at some examples of conflict in literature (and movies, because they’re written, too.)

Here are four heroes, off the top of my head:

  • Frodo Baggins
  • Scarlett O’Hara
  • Sam Spade
  • Walter Mitty

Each of them does indeed deal with conflict in the traditional sense:

  • Frodo faces orcs and trolls and an evil force bent on the destruction of the world
  • deals with the lives and deaths of multiple husbands — and a Civil War
  • Sam Spade is assaulted by Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the Fatman, all the friends of Mr. Cairo
  • Walter Mitty is chased by every possible B-movie bad guy, and some Nazi spies

This is heavy stuff. Life and death, literally, and not just for our heroes, but often, for entire worlds or cultures. This is the vicarious experience a reader thrives on. A book or movie which gives us a peek into a life we’ll never live, but would like to, attracts and holds our attention.

But that’s not the point. That’s not what anyone reads these books or watches these movies to see.

We care about these people because of their internal conflict. We need to know whether they succumb or overcome. We want to see ourselves in them, and since we can’t see our life in their external conflicts, we’ll best see ourselves in their internal conflicts.

Here’s what Lord of the Rings, Gone with the Wind, The Maltese Falcon, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are really about:

  • Frodo, after giving everything he has, loses his inner “good vs. evil” struggle and gives in to the One Ring
  • Scarlett fights to remain relevant by keeping Tara relevant (“Land, Scarlett!”)
  • Sam Spade achieves justice in the face of personal loss; indeed, partly because of that personal loss: “I won’t because all of me wants to.”
  • Walter Mitty, world-class milquetoast (he literally eats milk toast during the movie) overcomes his timidity.

The universal eternal conflicts are within us, not around us.

Conflict can be subtle. Just as the literary definition of “hero” doesn’t have to mean Superman, “conflict” doesn’t have to mean the Ring of Power, Civil War, Nazis, or Joel Cairo.

Contrast is conflict. Music without contrast is insipid and revolting.

The literary definition of conflict includes the first scenario I faced this morning: I needed a cup of tea, and I did not have one. My need conflicted with my situation.

Fortunately, my wife saw my bleary face and promptly provided the tea.

I immediately developed an unfulfilled need for a good morning kiss, and once again, Best Beloved resolved my conflict to complete satisfaction.

Conflict also includes “I wish I had a better life” which inherently conflicts “what I have” with “what I want.” Is this a bad thing? Never! Self-improvement is glorious.

One can write an entire book without overt negatives in it, and still have plenty of conflict.

How Much Drama? How Much Tension?

Now consider a movie like Finding Forrester or Driving Miss Daisy; books like Crime and Punishment, Jane Eyre, and The Little Prince.

Those are almost entirely about internal conflict. Sure, there are moments of high drama here and there, but the primary plot, the real story, is people struggling against their own nature, to change it, or to accept it.

A gun pointed at a head is dramatic tension.

A woman of color finding her place in a changing society is dramatic tension at a higher level.

A man choosing whether or not life is worth living is dramatic tension at its pinnacle, which is why Hamlet’s soliloquy on the subject is one of the most quoted bits of writing in human history.

Choose your audience, and give them the level and style of tension they’ll expect to find in your work. A mystery will have a gun. More literary fiction will have deep pondering on the nature of man.

But without dramatic tension, no one will read your book twice.

If you enjoy the posts in this series, please do me a favor and buy Larry’s books. This blog is free, of course, but I couldn’t be teaching you these things without Larry’s writing and blog. The $25 it will cost you to buy the books will be more than repaid by the information you get from them.

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