Conflict, suspense,tension: Keep readers reading


Build tension within and between your characters. What do the three minor birds (characters) have against the lead bird? Are they ganging up for an attack, or is the lead about to turn and show her dominance? Every second they swim closer, the tension builds.


What keeps readers’ eyes on the page? What makes a book that you can’t put down?

These are the questions I’m exploring to start the year. It’s an important topic so I’ll be covering different aspects each week this month. As usual, I’m reading, watching, and listening to everything on the subject. I am also using my notes from Story by Robert McKee and Elements of Fiction Writing:Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell. If you have suggestions of other books and posts on the subject, please let us (me and other readers) know in the comments.

According to Robert McKee, a story is a design in five parts:

  • an inciting incident
  • progressive complications
  • crisis
  • climax
  • resolution

Four out of the five parts scream conflict to me. So, how do we come up with all this conflict?

Before you even think about plot, scenes, action, or dialogue, you can create tension and conflict within and between your characters.

Think about yourself and your close friends. Think of a moment when you thought wow, I’m a hypocrite, or s/he’s a hypocrite. Why do you think that? Usually, it’s because you, or someone you know, does something that they say they will never do or complain when others do it. These don’t have to be major events like murder or joining a cult, but by the time we’re done learning about conflict and suspense, they probably will be.

Those times that you accuse yourself or others of hypocrisy, you are perceiving dual nature. It’s what makes for well rounded characters and also creates inner conflict.


For instance:

A performer who has social phobia and gets sick before every show.

A person completely against standardized testing in schools who takes a job scoring and later teaching others how to score standardized tests.

A developer who says we need more trees for clean air and people need space and privacy for mental health.


You get the picture. Why would people do things that make them sick? Why would people take jobs that are completely against their values? Why do people say one thing and do the exact opposite? It happens every second of every day and it is conflict–the stuff that readers can’t put down.

Try this exercise by James Scott Bell:

Create a background for your character that is in conflict with his/her current social setting. His version was cliche, but when I applied it to my work in progress, it made sense.


You can’t help but put yourself in your writing and reading, so why not start with you?

Here are a couple of James Scott Bell’s exercises (with my little additions):

1.What issues in life really make you mad?

Make a list

Choose the most important and write about the issue from both sides (like you’re in debate class). It’s hard, but that’s the point. Get outside of yourself and put yourself in the opponent’s shoes.

2.Make a list of the ten things you care about most.

Write a paragraph or two about why these things matter to you.

Now write from the perspective of someone who is opposed to these things, or stopping you from doing these things.

I was going to finish this up with a chart and a poll, but it published itself when I thought I was saving it as a draft.

So happy writing and I’ll write more about conflict and suspense next week.

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