Last time, I discussed tension in relation to the interaction between the writer and the reader. Basically, tension exists between what the reader thinks will happen and what the writer knows will happen.
But there’s another kind of tension, and it’s one that many people may be more familiar with. We’ll call the first kind of tension “external” tension. In this post, we’ll be discussing “internal” tension.
Internal tension is tension that exists entirely within the book. It is the difference between one in-world world model and another. If a character’s vision of the world is different than the world’s vision of itself, the character cannot predict how the world will react to their actions. Similarly, if the character’s idea of how a man should act is different than his love interest’s, he can’t predict how she will react. Remember how I said readers hated not knowing what will happen? Well, it’s the same deal for characters. Because readers and characters are both people (or they should be, but I’ll save the discussion on cardboard characters for another day). And people don’t like uncertainty. It makes them nervous and it makes them feel helpless, because they don’t know what to do to get their desired outcome.
If you will remember, I made the claim last post that tension is the basis of conflict. To be more specific, internal tension is the basis of conflict. One character sees something one way, the other another. Well, that’s fine, right? But when people see that thing a certain way, they try to make it fit their vision. They make things conform to their expectations. If it doesn’t fit, it’s got to go, or be ignored, but whatever
The problem is, we have two (or more) different views here. One person’s uncertainty is another person’s comfort. Now we have an issue. The hero wants the king on the throne and not one penny more than 20% taxes. The villain wants himself on the throne, and not one penny less than 90% taxes. And they’re both ready to fit the world to their vision. (The main reason the bad guys needs those high taxes if he wins, to pay off all the debt.)Which means one of them won’t get what they want. They’re gonna have to fight it out. Now we’ve got conflict.
And this goes for any type of conflict, really. Want internal conflict? The love interest likes bad boys. The hero is a mama’s boy. To wear a bike helmet or not to wear a bike helmet? That is the question. Still internal tension, but now we have one person having a choice, instead of two people having a fight. Sure there’s no bangs and zooms and magic swords (or are there?), but we’ve still got that tension. And the reader (and the character) wants to see it resolved.
To sum up, conflict is when resolving one character’s tension prevents the other character’s tension from being resolved. It doesn’t end until both are resolved. Often by killing one character (in fantasy, since this is a blog about spec fic), and other times through character growth. Which is a lot harder to pull off well.
Next post, we’ll apply some of these ideas to magic systems.