Elements of Conflict: A Recipe for Tension

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Conflict is the life blood of a story. It’s not something you can will onto the page; it’s a byproduct of meticulous planning, of adding multiple ingredients together in just the right way. Conflict is  what makes your reader turn the page, and the next, and the next without realizing they’ve spent three hours reading and are half way through your book. But how do you get there? How do you develop the skills to add said ingredients in just the right way?

The answer is simple and complicated at the same time. In my experience, I’ve found that the ingredients of conflict consist of three primary elements: plot, character, and setting. My old mentor and friend Brandon Sanderson told me to think of it as a Venn diagram where plot, character, and setting overlap. Each of these ingredients contains infinite microcosms of complexity. But even though the ingredients themselves are complex, once you understand how to develop them—even at the most basic level—mixing them together is simple. You only need to know the recipe to get started.

Diagram

Step one: preheat the oven to five thousand degrees.

Think of the oven as your setting. Heat equals tension. Building tension takes time. The more developed your setting is, the hotter the oven will be when you’re ready to add the forthcoming mixture of character and plot. Delve into the minutiae of your setting: world building, government, social hierarchies, school dynamics, sports, war, flora and fauna, magic, and a thousand other things. Consider this example: a dystopian government forces children to hunt and kill each other in an arena. You can practically feel the tension rising from it in waves.

Step two: Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

Dry ingredients are the constitution of a mixture, and as such, they are your characters. Some are used for flavor, like sugar. Some for leavening, like yeast. Others for balance, like salt. The important thing to know about dry ingredients is that if you have too little or too much, the mixture turns out all wrong. Your characters need precise measurement. As an example: an uncertain archer, a steady baker, an uncontrollable rebel, an innocent child, a bloodthirsty president, an ignorant show host, a downtrodden mother.

Step three: Add the wet ingredients to the large bowl, and make a mess.

Plot is not a separate entity from your characters. It is only through your characters that plot can be driven—because plot is the sum total of your characters’ interactions. That’s why the wet ingredients are your plot. They pull the dry ingredients together, forming a mess of dough that would be unspectacular if left separate. The same principle applies here as above: too much or too little can spoil the mixture, so be precise. Consider this: Only one can survive the arena. Our hero enters, knowing that she must not only stay alive, but also kill.

Step four: Bake the mixture in the preheated oven.

Put it all through the fire. This is where everything comes together, in the middle of the diagram. Baking can sometimes take time—often even longer than preheating. And that’s fine, because rising tensions take time to build. But as the three ingredients combine as the story goes on, the more tension builds and the greater the conflict is when the story reaches its climax. Just be sure not to cook it too long, or it’ll burn.

Step five: Let cool, and enjoy.

In the end, if you’ve added the right ingredients, mixed and proportioned them well, and baked it properly, your conflict will taste so good that your readers will be begging for seconds.

Happy writing!

Writers’ Clearinghouse empowers authors and agents by providing low-cost, at-a-glance evaluations of entire manuscripts, with emphasis in twenty specific areas (including conflict) that tell you exactly where your manuscript stands, its strengths and weaknesses, and what you can do to improve it.

Credit: Examples courtesy of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

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