A couple of months ago (on May 7, 2017, to be exact) I posted a blog entry about what I called “The High Tension Of Life.” In this post I suggested that an author should write his/her fictitious stories so that the protagonist isn’t subjected to a high level of tension or conflict entirely through the story. A story like that is difficult to read, and it’s grossly unrealistic as well. I gave an example of a book (which I deliberately kept unnamed) in which the author did just that, and I hated it. I strongly suggest it not be done. Keep the tension or conflict rising and falling, like the waves on the ocean, so that the reader as well as the character won’t be exposed to tremendous emotional stress for the entire book.
But in order to do that, a writer has to know the difference between tension and conflict in the first place. They’re both similar and I’m sure most people understand that. But what, then, is the difference? As a start, I looked them up in a dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. (I used a couple of other dictionaries too, but they weren’t as helpful.) In their simplified form, and most significant for a writer, both have to do with opposition, and the hostility or antagonism that can arise between two people, or between a person and some other external force. Tension most frequently is thought of as being internal, and not always obvious to others, as for example, a person who works two jobs and worries about feeding his/her family, but that’s not always the case. Conflict is so often external, like between two people. Or, for example, as in Andy Weir’s The Martian, between a person and his/her environment. Webster’s even acknowledges the use of the term in writing, defining conflict in part as “opposition of forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction.”
But those are oversimplifications of the definition of the two words. Tension can be outward, conflict can be internal. Tension is a force that puts a person or a fictional character in stress; conflict is the opposition between two characters or forces. Tension is a descriptive word alluding to the stress that a person feels in a difficult situation; conflict comes from opposition—just plain, unadulterated hostility. Opposition can produce tension, too. A fight between a married couple is conflict, but it can induce tension in both, and even within the children who overhear.
As Webster’s noted, conflict is essential to dramatic action—it’s what keeps the story moving. The usual literary dogma is “you must have conflict on every page,” although that sounds like one of those “unalterable” rules of writing that gets passed around to every new writer, and which the passer and the “passee” take for granted without stopping to examine in any real detail. I’m not sure you have to have conflict on every page, though you’re going to need it on most (>90%) pages. What may be more important, though, is the underlying tension that pervades a story. Tension—low, slow and in some case almost undetectable—will have to come from the situation your characters find themselves in. One of my favorite books in recent years is Connie Willis’s two volume set, Blackout and All Clear. (She originally wrote them as a single volume, but it was so big her publisher made her split it into two.) The story is set in London during the Battle of Britain, specifically during the “Blitz,” when Germany bombed the city almost every night. The major conflict is between England and Germany, of course, though there’s conflict between most of the characters too. But every evening, the city evacuates into the subway tunnels to ride out the bombing, and this underlying tension affects everyone. There may not be any actual conflict between those present in any given subway station, but the tension of the situation is present all the time. It pervades the story constantly, and from the tension conflict arises. Even during the day, as the residents of London go about their daily lives, they know that they will have to find a safe spot on a subway platform near sundown. How would you like to live under those conditions?
Tension can be thought of as a “low level of conflict,” and to a great extent that’s true. But there’s a difference, and a writer needs to understand that difference in order to produce an excitingly readable work. Raymond Chandler is reported to have said, “When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” That would certainly raise the tension.