As we continue on our series of the 38 Story Elements, Kristina Stanley from Fictionary joins JoEllen Nordstrom and talks about the difference between Tension and Conflict in Fiction Writing.

A lot of people have struggled to differentiate between tension and conflict, so let’s learn about it and how it may help enhance your writing 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?



Welcome back to Publishing Power. We are continuing our series of the 38 story elements and again today I have my co-host, Kristina Stanley, from Fictionary.

In today’s episode  we’re gonna cover tension and conflict and what’s the difference between them.

Tension Vs Conflict

Tension is the expectation that something bad is going to happen, but it’s not actually happening. It’s the ‘expectation’ that if you think of Jurassic park in one of the scenes where the bus is at the edges of the cliff but nothing’s happened yet they’re just sitting there kind of wavering that’s tension because you’re waiting if the bus gonna go this way or that way but you don’t know yet but it’s super tense.

Conflict is when something is ‘actually happening’ when that bus goes over the cliff and they’re trying to scramble out and their conflict is against nature basically at this time. It’s something physically happening or it’s an argument happening in action.

And so one is the ‘expectation of something bad’ and that’s tension and the other is the ‘bad thing is happening right now’ and that’s conflict. This is really important to our writing because we have to manage that to get that story arc.

Using Tension and Conflict Effectively

You don’t want to wear out your readers and so we can use action scenes and sequels scenes to do that and when there’s a few action scenes in a row the reader needs to take their breath and to do that you have a sequel scene which still has to have tension in it, it can’t be boring.

But it doesn’t have to be full of conflict, and so it’s a scene where maybe the protagonist is reflecting on what happened or they’re making a plan for what to do next because of what happened. There’s some kind of reaction to the conflict that has happened in previous scenes and it gives the reader.  Also, they can process it just like the main character is processing it, the reader can do that too.

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, the midpoint plot point two, and the climax have to have the most tension and conflict and the climax must have the most. If you have another scene prior to a climax that has more attention and more conflict your climax is going to be a letdown.

You need to pay attention to the key scenes and particularly to the climax better be the biggest whammy. This is when having a tool really helps because this is a lot to manage. We’re going to go through this, we’re going to look at it and then we have to evaluate how well we’re following that story arc.

How we’re going to do this manually or if we were going to do it in story coachwork? What you want to be doing now as a writer is you want to be looking at every scene and assessing ‘is there tension?’ and you can either just go “Yep there is” and that’s great or if you want to be more specific and really analyze it write down in a few words, ‘what is the tension and ‘is their conflict?’ and again it’s the same thing you put a tick mark yes or no or maybe a little description of what the conflict is.

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

The guideline is, there should be tension in every single scene and maybe not your final scene where you’re just closing it off and you know if it’s a romance and the lovers walk happily into the sunset that’s fine.

But up until that very final scene, there must be tension but there doesn’t need to be conflict in every scene. And so with conflict, you’re looking for ‘how much’ and is there a breather for the reader in between’ so that you know they 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. We’re gonna look at all of our scenes again and folks you don’t have to do this all every 38 times but again when you’re going through this is a very important thing to look at and resolve your conflict and your tension and make sure that it’s following the story arc which is the most important goal here because we really got to make sure that you’re creating the book that people want again and again again.

Thank you for joining us today and if you enjoy this episode, please share and invite your friends and let us know what you learned from it.

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