The longer I do this writing gig the more I think that’s true. Pay attention the next time you read a book or watch a movie or check out a TV show everyone’s talking about. It’s going to be full of conflict. In my mind there are three levels: world conflict (macro conflict), interpersonal conflict (micro conflict), internal conflict (sub-micro or maybe metaphysical conflict). Yes, character development and worldbuilding are important–if readers don’t care about the characters they won’t give a shit if they fall off a cliff or not–but an argument could be made that those elements aren’t as important as conflict. Two like-able characters become boring if they’re never at odds with each other, a third party, or the Big Shit that’s about to hit the fan. A really, really great story finds a way to tie all three together.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
Norma and Jean are mortal enemies because Jean is married to Norma’s ex-husband Marty (micro). Not only that, Jean and Marty had an affair while he and Norma were still married. (Still micro–edging into macro, here, depending on the circumstances of the affair).
Jean feels guilty about being the other woman so much that she hates herself a little. A lot, actually (sub-micro).
Marty happens to be the President of the United States who is in the middle of WWIII and is deciding whether or not to turn it nuclear. (Macro)
How do we tie ’em all together? Maybe Jean’s a spy who’s been charged with becoming the President’s mistress in order to get his secrets but finds herself falling in love him. And Norma is her sister.
See? Juicy! Interesting! I wanna know more about these characters. Hell, I wanna *write* about these characters now.
It’s important to remember that conflict isn’t the same as “action”. A story doesn’t need to be wall-to-wall bloodshed to be full of conflict. There are various degrees of tension and part of learning the craft of writing is learning the nuances of conflict.
If you’re not familiar with Brad Beaulieu, well. For one thing, you should be, because he’s a hell of a writer. For another, he’s great at teaching tension. He gives seminars on tension at Gen Con and Origins–if you’re able, try to attend one. He’ll break down a popular book to show you how the author put tension on every page. A few years back he wrote an article for the SFWA bulletin, and I leave you with a bit of his advice:
… a successful novel needs not only to vary the tension level, but it needs to combine a variety of tension, and the most successful will combine them in different ways to create a symphony of anxiety within the reader to keep them turning the pages. Just take a look at mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. There are still action-packed sword fights and times of suspense and dread. And within sweeping tales like The Lord of the Rings, there are still times where Frodo pines for the life in the Shire, bringing in sharp relief the arduous and danger-filled path he’s taking toward Mount Doom.