Tag Archives: Conflict tension and pacing

Conflict, Tension, and Pacing #amwriting

When we sit down to read a book, most readers don’t consciously look for certain key elements, but we know when something is missing. Unfortunately for most authors, I am not most readers. I can’t just read a book anymore. I must dissect it to see what makes it tick. When a story works well, I  want to know why. Then, as needed, I hope to incorporate that bit of author-magic into my writing.

Consider conflict—What pushes the characters? What element drives and forces the momentum of the story?

My book reading group just finished Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I had read it in 1985 when it was first published, re-read it for a book review five years ago, and re-read it again for the group’s February book. I don’t like the book, but I admire it.

I know–that doesn’t make sense. But it does, because I admire it in a purely mechanical, technical way.

From Wikipedia:

Ender’s Game is a 1985 military science fiction novel by American author Orson Scott Card. Set at an unspecified date in Earth’s future, the novel presents an imperiled mankind after two conflicts with the Formics, an insectoid alien species which they dub the “buggers”. In preparation for an anticipated third invasion, children, including the novel’s protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, are trained from a very young age through increasingly difficult games including some in zero gravity, where Ender’s tactical genius is revealed.

Even though I had read it before, I became involved in Ender’s story on this third read primarily because the author did all the right things.

This, despite the fact I don’t care for Card’s writing style. His ability to convey both character and story outweighs the irritation I have with the prose and style of his work.

  • The plot is always moving forward.
  • There is no overuse of backstory.
  • Showing is well-balanced with telling—it’s not obnoxiously in-your-face with descriptions of minute facial expressions but has enough active prose to keep the reader involved in the narrative.
  • The characters are shown to have a believable internal/external struggle, even though the book is about training children to kill.

Card explores the theme of “Compassion vs. Ruthlessness,” and the book has some exceedingly violent scenes. The three Wiggins children are the primary characters, with Ender being the main protagonist.

Ender is compassionate, and yet ruthless. One thing I found disturbing is that in the book, Ender was 6 when he leaves Earth for Battle School and 11 by the time of the final examination battle. During that time, he has killed (in self-defense) two boys who were bullying him, and untold numbers of the enemy, although he never learns that he caused their deaths until much later.

Valentine, Ender’s older sister, is compassionate, but without the power of ruthlessness both Ender and Peter demonstrate. She becomes Peter’s accomplice.

Peter, the oldest of the Wiggin children, is ruthlessness embodied and is utterly without compassion—a sociopath. His one ambition is to rule the world, and he will stop at nothing and use anyone to achieve that end. Yet, despite his personal lack of compassion, he turns out to be a good ruler. Evil in this book is represented by his acting for the wrong reasons, regardless of the outcome.

I may not like his style, but I have a great appreciation for Card’s ability to reveal a character, and I admire the way he paced the narrative.

The resolution of one conflict leads to another, which is resolved and turns into another—the author keeps the pressure on, raising the tension by always raising the stakes. Yet, he gives both Ender and the reader a chance to rest a little and regroup before flinging them into the (slightly more intense) action again. In these less intense moments, the story is still moving because we are learning something we didn’t know, and that knowledge is crucial to what may follow.

The serious topics of genocide and Western expansionism are explored. These actions are justified or regretted depending on the character in this book. Also, we see lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics acted out in a Military environment by bright young children.

The eternal problem of intention and morality is explored. Ender is able to strike and kill his enemies yet remain morally clean.

Those themes fuel the narrative and push the story when the physical action has temporarily calmed. They drive the conflict, create a constant raising of tension, and allow the pacing of the book to hard and fast but not overwhelming.

It is easy to unbalance a narrative by not allowing the reader to rest between scenes of intense violence and action. A scene that is all action is confusing if it has no context. Conversations are crucial because they give context to whatever action follows.

In any story, the crucial underpinnings of conflict, tension, and pacing are bound together. Go too heavily on one aspect of the triangle and the story fails to engage the reader. Balance the three, and the story works even if the reader doesn’t care for the writer’s style or prose.

The book group is going to read The Tattooist of Auschwitz next, for the May meeting. This is a book I haven’t read yet, so I’m looking forward to it. I will be looking at how characters are portrayed, what makes them compelling,  and how the pyramid of conflict, tension, and pacing pushes their growth.


Credits and Attributions:

Cover art, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, published 1985 by Tor Books,  Fair Use.

Wikipedia contributors, “Ender’s Game,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ender%27s_Game&oldid=880941502 (accessed February 25, 2019).

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