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Tension vs. Conflict: What’s the Difference?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Tension and conflict are two important elements of any good story. Though they are closely related, tension and conflict are distinct principles that help build drama and keep readers engaged through the end of the book. Learning the distinctions between tension and conflict will help elevate your writing and make your storylines more engaging.



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What Is Tension in Writing?

Tension in a literary context is the sense that something ominous is right around the corner. Building a large amount of tension as a writer keeps your readers engaged up until the end of the story. Mystery novels are full of tension and foreboding, and they generally feature tense scenes from beginning to end. Working within the genre of mystery writing is a great way to learn how to layer tension into your narrative arc. Good use of tension makes a story worth reading and keeps readers guessing.

3 Tips for Using Tension in Your Writing

Learning to build tension is no easy task. Even the most seasoned professional writers have trouble maintaining tension from beginning to end. Here are a few tips for using tension successfully in your writing:

  1. Foreshadowing: An important part of building tension is using foreshadowing to build dramatic tension and keep readers on the edges of their seats. In Harry Potter, author J.K. Rowling uses flashbacks and backstory to foreshadow the eventual major conflict that will unfold between Harry Potter and the villainous Voldemort.
  2. Inner conflict: Sometimes inner conflict and self-doubt can be layered in through character development and used to build levels of tension. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the main character wants to avenge his father’s death but is beset by self-doubt, paralyzing indecision, and mental strain. As an audience, there is a sense of tension in every scene as we wait to see if Hamlet will act on his inner desire for retribution or remain stuck in a place of indecision.
  3. A time limit: One great way to build tension in your story is to place a time limit on an action your character has to undertake. By adding the element of a ticking clock, you build tension and increase stakes. This is a common technique used in thriller novels and films as well as action and adventure stories.
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What Are the Differences Between Conflict and Tension?

While tension simmers under the surface, conflict is generally out in the open—it's tension realized. Tension might be present an unspoken rivalry between the protagonist and antagonist or in the audience’s awareness of an impending disaster. Conflict, on the other hand, involves an active clash; maybe the protagonist and the antagonist engage in a firefight or a heated debate, or maybe a character fights off a pack of animals or works to prevent climate catastrophe. Even if the conflict is interior—a character battling low self-worth, perhaps—it still involves opposing forces struggling for supremacy.

What Is Conflict in Writing?

Conflict can come in many forms. Conflict in a story can be a physical fistfight or a passive-aggressive war of words. All that is required for conflict is a manifestation of disagreement or incompatibility between a character and something else. Characters can be in conflict with other characters, with natural forces, or with society at large.

Another type of conflict is internal conflict. Conflict is one of the fundamental principles of narrative and creative writing. In order to write a story worth reading, you need characters whose point of view is in some way challenged and to whom bad things happen. Without conflict, you won’t have a narrative or any meaningful character arc.


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4 Types of Conflict and Tips for Using Them in Your Writing

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The kind of conflict you use depends on what your plot and subplots are centered around and what your main character wants and needs. New plot points generally introduce conflict or advance existing conflict. Here are some types of conflict to employ in your writing and a few tips about when and how you might want to employ each type of conflict.

  1. Person vs. self: An internal conflict is a kind of conflict that only manifests within a character’s head. Though we may see this conflict dramatized through narration or dialogue, or play out in the protagonist’s actions, it is an internal struggle within a character.
  2. Person vs. person: The simplest and most common form of external conflict is when two characters are in conflict with each other. The first stories we are told as kids generally have a clear good guy and bad guy. These stories are early introductions to person vs. person conflict. Person vs. person conflicts are very common, and it’s rare to find a narrative without an interpersonal conflict present at some point in the story.
  3. Person vs. nature: Conflict between a person and forces of nature is a good example of external struggle that can raise the stakes in a story. Some notable stories that included conflict between a person and a natural force include The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Consider using person vs. nature conflict if you’re interested in writing a story with one main character and few, if any, supporting characters.
  4. Person vs. society: Conflict between a person and society at large is a type of conflict often found in science fiction. Some notable examples of this type of conflict are found in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games series. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen finds herself contending with a dystopian and oppressive United States government that pits citizen against citizen in order to keep dissent down and quell rebellion. If you’re interested in science fiction or narratives about social justice, you might want to consider exploring conflicts that pit an individual character against society at large.

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