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 the way they write prose.
Scenes involving conflict are controlled chaos—controlled on the part of the author.
Stories that lack conflict are just character studies.
A story that opens with a teenager leaving her parents’ home, angry, then meeting a manager on a bus and being offered a gig as lead guitar player for a big-name band, and ending on that happy note lacks conflict. It is a case of authorly wish-fulfilment.
An angry, naïve teenager and a “successful manager” on a bus…what could possibly go wrong? The roadblocks and obstacles that happen between her leaving home and finally gaining success are conflict, and they are what makes a story more than just a character study.
First, if it is a violent confrontation, there must be a logical reason for the problem. Don’t insert a fight just because you can’t think of any other way to liven things up. Most people have to be pushed into angry confrontations. The emotional triggers that cause them to snap must make sense to a reader and be logical within the established storyline.
Long, drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears. For that reason, I keep my violence concise and linear.
I’ve read books where the authors focused too firmly on the technical side of the fight. Too many words were spent on how they were dressed, who hit who with what weapon, in minute detail. Yes, these are necessary elements of the scene. Just remember that long paragraphs with too much detail can be confusing to the reader.
Conflict is not only fighting.
Conflict is what keeps the protagonist from achieving their goals. Overcoming the opposition is the reward for sticking with the story.
No one is going to stick with a novel where random, convoluted quarrels and roadblocks happen for no good reason. The most important consideration in plotting conflict is need.
What does the protagonist gain by overcoming it?
Why did it happen?
What is the purpose of injecting that conflict into the narrative?
Let’s look at Billy Ninefingers. Besides the obvious fact that he is seriously injured in the opening fight, which is the core plot point of the book, I had two other goals to accomplish with the inciting incident.
First, I knew one of the fundamental laws of writing; that plausible literary conflict is not random.
For Billy’s plight to be believable, the reader must see that the Bastard is jealous of his success and acts on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind. Because the conflict is not random, the reader must later be allowed to discover how the Bastard is manipulated, why he’s being used in this way, and by whom.
In the resolution of the initial scene, my intention was to demonstrate that Billy, even with his life in ruins, has a sense of fair-play.
Billy’s resilience, his creativity, and how he overcomes one roadblock after another despite his maimed hand is the story.
In other words, conflict drives and forces the momentum of the story. It must stir emotions in the reader. The reader must feel the sense of justification or sorrow or triumph that the protagonist experiences with each interaction.
Tension is experienced during the build-up to an incident. The resolution of one conflict leads to another, which is resolved and turns into another. In maintaining good tension, the author keeps the pressure on, raising the anxiety by always raising the stakes.
Pacing is the underpinning, the way the scenes are structured. As our narrative follows the arc of the story, our characters experience action and reaction. The story has a feeling of life, almost as if it is breathing. It moves forward, then allows a brief moment where the reader and the protagonist process what just happened, and then it moves forward again. The speed with which these things occur is called “pacing.”
Pacing allows the conflict to continue raising the tension yet gives both the reader and the protagonists a chance to rest between incidents.
One of the most challenging aspects of writing the first draft of any action scene is to ensure that each character remains a unique individual. A blurring of personalities is a problem that occurs when an author focuses too intently on the mechanics, the action and interaction of a scene, writing it as if they lived it.
For the author, acting out the action ensures that the moves are reasonable and make sense. But you aren’t done writing that scene just because the hacking, slashing, and gunshots are on paper.
Tension is heightened as scenes are connected to each other, and more deadlines and showdowns approach. This feeling of subtle anxiety is controlled by pacing.
Thus, the plot of any story is composed of a triangle formed by conflict and tension, set on a foundation of good pacing.
On the positive side, once we get the pacing right, it’s easier to use the conflict to ratchet up the tension.