In this episode of our continuing series on the 38 story elements, Kristina Stanley from Fictionary joins JoEllen Nordstrom to talk about the difference between tension and conflict.

A lot of people struggle with the difference between them, so let’s learn about them and see how they can enhance your writing right now.


  • [00:24] The Difference between Tension and Conflict
  • [01:36] Using Tension and Conflict Effectively
  • [02:26] Figuring and Gauging Tension and Conflict
  • [03:22] How to check Tension and Conflict in Story Coach Work?



Tension vs. conflict

Tension is the expectation that something bad is going to happen. The bad thing is not actually happening, but the reader expects it to at any moment. Think about Jurassic Park. In one scene, the bus is at the edge of a cliff, but they haven’t fallen over; they’re just sitting there, kind of wavering. That’s tension because you’re waiting to see if the bus will go this way or that way. You don’t know what the outcome will be, making the scene super tense.

Conflict is when something is actually happening. In the scene from Jurassic Park, it’s when that bus goes over the cliff and they’re trying to scramble out. It doesn’t have to be physical; it can also be social, like an argument, or even mental, emotional, or spiritual.

So. tension is the “expectation of something bad,” and conflict is the “bad thing is happening right now.” This distinction is really important to our writing because we have to manage both to create a story arc.

Using tension and conflict effectively

You don’t want to wear out your readers, and too many action scenes in a row can do that. The reader needs to catch their breath every now and then, and sequel scenes let them do that.

Sequel scenes don’t have to be full of conflict. Maybe the protagonist reflects on what happened or makes a plan for what to do next. There should always be some kind of reaction to the conflict in previous scenes so the reader can process it just like the main character. Though they don’t need conflict, it’s important to keep in mind that even sequel scenes need to have tension so they aren’t boring.

What do we have to do to figure this out, and how do we gauge this? Pay attention to the story arc. Clearly, the key scenes, the inciting incident, plot point one, midpoint, plot point two, and climax, have to have more tension and conflict than other scenes, and the climax must have the most. If another scene in the story has more tension and conflict than your climax, then your climax is going to be a letdown.

You need to pay attention to the key scenes; in particular, the climax better have the biggest bang. This is when having a tool like StoryCoach really helps because this is a lot to manage.

When evaluating how well you are following that story arc, the first thing to do is

look at every scene and ask, “Is there tension?” You can either go, “Yep, there is,” which is fine, or you can be more specific and really analyze it, writing down what the tension is and if there is conflict. So, you can either put a tick mark, write yes or no, or add a little description of the conflict.

When you’ve done that for every scene, you can look for a pattern and see, “Wow, I had five scenes in a row that had no tension and no conflict.” That’s a place where the reader’s going to skim, and if it’s that long, they’re probably going to put your book down and not come back to it.

The rule of thumb is that there should be tension in every single scene—except, maybe, your final scene, where you’re just closing the story off. For example, if it’s a romance and the lovers walk happily into the sunset, that’s fine.

Up until that very final scene, there must be tension, but there doesn’t need to be conflict in every scene. With conflict, you want to make sure there are breathers every now and then so readers can process what’s happened in the story.

It’s a big job but totally worth it because, without tension, a reader’s not getting to the end of the book. So, make sure that tension is present in all of your scenes and that your conflict and tension follow the story arc. This is the most important goal here because you want to create a book that people will want to read again and again.

If you enjoyed this chapter, please share it with your friends and let us know what you learned from it.



WATCH PREVIOUS EPISODE: Entry and Exit Hooks – EPISODES #17 & #18


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