When we talk about the key ingredients that go into a story, one thing that is usually stipulated as essential is the need for conflict. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway describes conflict as “a fundamental element”, that “in literature only trouble is interesting.” In How to Craft a Great Story, Chris Sykes writes that “we want choppy and not calm seas for our characters to swim in or sail on”. While I don’t necessarily agree that ALL stories need conflict (see notes below), I definitely agree that most of them benefit from a slice of tension – and ‘tension’ is my preferred term when talking about this. ‘Conflict’, for me, makes it sound as though all stories should be a warzone where forces are pitched in opposition – person vs person, person vs environment, person vs situation, person vs self – but does terming it ‘conflict’ push us always towards the extremes, away from the possibility of crafting quiet stories where the tension comes not from two ideas on opposite sides of the spectrum but from two ideas that are different shades of the same colour?
Possibilities for tension
The most obvious source of tension is that between two people. The fact that each of us are unique with different points of view, different opinions means there is a contrast between us, and in that contrast, there is the possibility for tension. In Snowstorm (Tara Isabel Zambrano | Atticus Review), we see two characters who are initially in synch – “we slip into sweatpants and over-sized shirts”, “we sit on the couch” – everything is in first-person plural, and then a shift into “I”s and “you”s. The tension here is subtle but it has a wonderful build to it, how quickly we move from the relatively innocent “my mother lost me once on a crowded bus stop” to the horrific “you were molested on a train, by a man your father’s age.” When we shift back to first-person plural in the ending, there is an overwhelming sense that the connectivity which was there at the start has changed for good but, as Tommy Dean says in his own analysis of this piece, “we the reader get to decide how far this relationship has actually moved.”
Another piece that I think shows the tension between different people so well is My child speaks with the voice of a swallow (Michelle Christophorou | Free Flash Fiction). In this heart-breaking story, there is tension between the narrator and the child, the narrator and the other parents, the narrator and their friends, the narrator and their family. This build-up of multiple tensions, multiple opinions on how the narrator should bring up their child, creates an effect almost like a mosaic. Added to the person versus person tension, we also have the tension of the narrator versus themselves, the tension between the different things the narrator has tried or might consider trying, we have the emotional tension between love and resentment, juxtaposing these ideas throughout.
Tension might be created between a person and their environment, or between differing points of view. Pieces that deal with inner tensions can be so powerful because this is often where we find those universal truths – there might be a decision to be made, two possible paths in our future, a fear to overcome. As writers of fiction, we are dealing in the realms of fact versus fantasy and I love the way this is played on in If Everyone Was a Superhero (Chloe Banks | Bath Flash Fiction). Here, we have a wonderful story that imagines a world without suffering. However, in the hypothetical “if” of that title, there is a tension that hangs over the piece.
When I’m offering critique on short fiction, one thing that I often ask is whether the initial tension could be brought further up the page. In my blog post on openings, I talk about the need for intrigue at the start of a story and often intrigue is wrapped up in this idea of tension. In What Became of My Heart (Jilly Witty | Moonpark Review), the opening phrase “The morning my life had not yet darkened” does so much to reel me in as a reader. This phrase casts a shadow over the happy images of “handstands” and “long, slender legs” that follow. It is also provides a low enough platform that there is a lot of possibility for upwards build. If we imagine tension like a piece of rope, it is pulled tight but it can be pulled tighter, each new sentence and paragraph adding something new – “I have no excuse” (paragraph 2), “no storm would overpower you” (paragraph 3), “there were bad men in the world” (paragraph 4) etc. As with “Snowstorm”, I love how this piece leaves a reader to imagine exactly what has happened so the tension stretches beyond what is on the page, and continues to build after the final line.
Another piece that I think demonstrates a brilliant build of tension is Gone Cold (Megan Nichols | Gone Lawn). As with the story above, every new sentence tightens that tension just slightly. The rope (to come back to that analogy) is kept taut rather than ever being allowed to slacken. Again, we have multiple tensions here – between the narrator and himself, the narrator and public opinion; there is also the tension created through withholding information from the reader, the situation of what is going on inside that house slowly becoming clear. This is a tricky thing to do – often withholding information from a reader can create the wrong sort of tension (a frustration on the reader’s part) but done well, like it is here, I think it can be startlingly effective, almost like a camera slowly zooming out from something innocent (“the butter’s always cold”) to the implied reason for the temperature inside the house.
When building tension, I feel that mostly we want to keep things as taut as possible, just as we have seen in "Gone Cold", but in Chicago (Kathy Fish | Wigleaf) there's a moment right in the middle of the story where the tension is intentionally allowed to slacken just ever so slightly. Without reading any of the words, there is something startling about the form of this piece. We have eight short paragraphs then we have one long paragraph followed by twelve further short paragraphs. That middle paragraph stands out. It is a moment that takes us away from the immediate scene and back into a recollection from the narrator’s past. It acts almost like the lull in a storm. The principal tension is expertly set up in the opening sentence, and then it is reinforced in the third to fifth paragraphs so it lurks in a reader’s mind, and it isn’t until the sixth-from-last paragraph that we come back to that insistent image of the father kissing the “daughter like a lover in the hallway at her bedroom door.” For me, the way we move away from this horrific idea only serves to heighten the tension because we, as a reader, are always certain that we'll eventually loop back to it.
Techniques for building tension
One of the things that is apparent in so many of the stories I’ve picked out is the use of repetition. In “Chicago”, there are so many words or phrases that echo throughout the story (“dark hallway”, “Happy Days”, “like a lover”) – and these create a wonderfully insistent effect. A technique that takes this even further is to use anaphora (repetition at the beginning of a phrase or sentence) like in The Day Never Happened (Sara Chansarkar | Fractured Lit). Here, we have a narrator willing the opposite of reality to be true, and I think there’s so much power in that, the tension between what has happened and what they wish had happened.
Another thing to take from “Chicago” is the way that certain specific objects are set in contrast to each other. We have “Pink Catawba rosé” versus “Orange Crush”, we have the restaurant in the Amana Colonies versus the “ham sandwiches”. This juxtaposition of ideas is also something that jumps out at me in Something Like Happy (Emily Devane | Lost Balloon). Here, it is more a juxtaposition of light versus dark. We have “gritty” paired with “next”, we have “stinging” next-door to “singing”, we have “picture-postcard” paired with “cemetery”. Throughout, there are negative images competing for space with more positive ones. If you were to take a highlighter to this story and highlight positive images in green and negative images in red, you would end up with a well-balanced patchwork of colour. I always read this story as a hopeful one, and I think that's another thing we can take away from it - even a story that is moving in a more positive direction can use a glint of tension in order for that final moment of hope to contrast what has come before.
One thing I really like in “Gone Cold” is the use of rhythm and tempo to underpin the emotional build of the story. There is a punchiness to the writing, it is broken down into fragments where the word stress is packed in tight – “bake bread, peel oranges, carve the tops off strawberries, arrange little platters for two.” A similar effect is created by the staccato sentences and sentence fragments in Pen (Neil Clark | X-R-A-Y Lit Mag). I really like the way the writing in this piece mirrors the content of the story – the form of these short, explosive sentences enhancing the urgency of the situation being described.
Alternatively, we could go the other way entirely and lean into a one-sentence story as we see in The Almost-Kiss (Rosaleen Lynch | Tiny Molecules). For me, a one-sentence story has an effect similar to a never-ending accelerando in music – because of the lack of full stops, a reader naturally speeds up as they read, hurtling towards the end point, the emotions and the tension building up in parallel.
Do we need tension in a story?
I started this blog post by quoting two well-respected craft guides telling us that conflict (or tension) is essential to writing fiction. However, I would argue that this is too narrow a viewpoint. Fiction at the end of the day is simply something that someone has invented that isn’t the truth. If a character goes for a walk and it is sunny and the birds are singing and a butterfly lands on the character’s arm and flutters off again, there is no tension there but it is still fiction because it has been invented. And if the character decides to become a lepidopterist because of that encounter with the butterfly, then is there not a sense of change without the need for tension?
You might say that this sort of story doesn’t interest you, but writing is subjective (I personally would love to see some wonderful tension-free flash fiction out in the world!) And while tension (at least as far as I am concerned) is not essential for ALL stories, I think it is essential in certain types of stories. If we want to transport our reader to somewhere magical and uplifting then tension isn’t needed, it might even spoil the effect. But if our intention is to hold a mirror up to the human condition then mostly I think we do need a glint of tension. It can be subtle, it can be small, or it can build and build through shades of darkness, exploring the tensions between different people, different points of view, different ideas, different scenarios. Often the existence of tension is what makes a story resonate with a reader. Conflict and tension is a part of life whether we want it to be there or not.
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