Daren King on drama, conflict and tension

Guest author and blogger Daren King won the Nestle Prize with his Mouse Noses on Toast and offers mentoring to first-time novelists.

An author on my mentoring course recently asked me what is meant by drama, conflict and tension.

She knew what these words mean in the what-it-says-in-the-dictionary sense, but she was not sure what the words mean to her, as an author. Writing is an active process: if you’re to ‘up’ the drama, conflict or tension in your work, what do you have to do? Clearly the three concepts are related, perhaps to the extent that many readers just seem them as ‘things that make a novel more exciting’. But let’s get specific. We’ll lift the bonnet and, um, see what makes them tick.

I shall begin with the most dramatic of the three: drama. To me, drama is about ‘playing something out’ in your story’s real, physical world. In terms of characterisation, drama is about allowing characters to express their thoughts or emotions rather than just think or feel them.

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If a reader suggests your story needs more drama, this doesn’t mean you should give your bookish, ninety-year-old heroine a Heckler & Koch G36 selective fire 5.56mm assault rifle. Although that could work, a subtler approach is to ‘play things out externally’. The vicar feels angry? Replace that five-page essay about the vicar’s anger management issues with a sentence in which the vicar kicks the dog. Two nuns argue, rather than have conflicting viewpoints. (Show, don’t tell.) Consider why Sherlock Holmes has Doctor Watson: if the answer isn’t obvious, ask yourself whether you’d rather read two pages about Holmes scratching his nose and stoking his pipe as he thinks things through, or two pages in which Sherly and Watsy chew the cud. And think of why a stage play can also be referred to as a ‘drama’.

Having nailed drama, conflict is now easy to describe: it is what creates the thoughts and feelings that can be dramatised. The husband wants to drink booze; the wife wants him to be teetotal: this is a conflict of interest. Person A hates person B: this is a direct conflict between two people. Both of these are conflicts, and both can be dramatised, or ‘played out’.

Tension is more difficult. Perhaps tension is a feeling? Fine, but if it is a feeling that a reader can experience while turning pages, it must have been created by the author. The question is, how? Consider the example below.

The protagonist owes the landlady rent. That’s a general situation, and although it may create suspense (the reader does not know whether the protagonist will be evicted), it is too general to create a feeling of tension. But then the telephone rings. Is it the landlady, calling to evict the protagonist, or the protagonist’s half-brother Nigel, who lives in Basildon, calling about that broken lawnmower? When the telephone rings, during the agonising half page it takes the protagonist to step between the tracks of his sprawling model railway to reach the Bakelite, the reader experiences the plot element called ‘suspense’ as a mental state or an emotion.

A key point here is that tension is about what is known and what is not known. In Hitchcock’s famous bomb-under-the-table example, if the reader knows there’s a bomb under the table, the reader experiences tension. (Hitchcock was talking about suspense versus surprise, but the example applies to tension too). If the reader does not know about the bomb, this emotional response does not occur.

Perhaps all of this is obvious, but what is less obvious is that tension can exist not just on the level of plot, as I discussed above, but also on the level of language and on the level of character. I discuss tension on the level of language in my next blog entry. Here, let us turn to tension within characterisation.

There’s not much to it. Character A loves character B. If the reader knows exactly how character A feels about character B, aside from a little plot tension (suspense created by the ‘will they or won’t they?’ question), no characterisation tension exists. But what if the reader knows that character A has strong feelings for character B, but can’t quite put his or her finger on it? Characterisation tension is created, and the reader’s brain remains engaged.

Simple as this concept is, it can help you solve the more complex problem of deciding whether to write in the first or third person. If writing in the first person, this concept can help you decide how honest and open your protagonist narrator should be, and how self-aware. When writing in the third person, the concept can help you decide whether your narrator should be omnipotent, or how many viewpoint characters there should be, if any, and how close they should be to any viewpoint characters. There are no rules on this, but in general, the point is that you can create tension on the level of characterisation simply by restricting your narrator’s ability to access the thoughts and feelings of your character.

Happy writing!

Daren King’s first children’s novel, Mouse Noses on Toast, won the Nestle Children’s Book Prize, and his debut adult novel, Boxy an Star, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Daren offers a Complete Novel Writing Course, welcoming students who want to be mentored through the novel-writing cycle.