Maintaining Conflict Using Micro-tension

by Kyra Nelson

Conflict is one of the most important elements of a story. You can have interesting characters and a vivid setting, but unless something is happening, readers are going to get bored quickly. This might seem obvious, but so much of my editing comes down to creating consistent conflict throughout a novel.

When we think of conflict, we tend to go directly to big conflict. Big conflict consists of the main challenges that your character faces. Big conflict also has big stakes. Basically, it’s major problems that will make things really bad if not resolved.

Big conflict is great and important, but sometimes we focus so much on big conflict that we forget about smaller, more local level conflict. While big conflict usually takes the whole book (or even a series) to resolve, small conflict may only last for a couple chapters or a single chapter or a few pages. Small conflict isn’t as flashy as big conflict. The problems aren’t as overwhelming and the stakes aren’t high. However, we need small conflict in our books to support the big conflict.

Big conflict is great and important, but sometimes we focus so much on big conflict that we forget about smaller, more local level conflict.

A lot of writing advice makes more sense and is much easier to pull off when you’re more aware of small conflict. For instance, you may have heard the advice to start your book in the middle of action. Authors sometimes mistakenly believe that this means you always have to start the book in the middle of some bigger conflict, such as a major fight scene. Some books can pull this off, but in many other cases throwing the reader directly into a major conflict scene may just confuse them. They may not be invested in the characters enough to care about the big stakes of the conflict yet. In many cases, it’s not a good idea to open the book with a big action scene.

Better advice might be to start your book with something happening. Maybe that is a big action sequence. Or maybe it’s some sort of smaller conflict. Both can work to get the reader invested in your story.

People sometimes think bigger is better when it comes to conflict. But audiences can be just as invested in small conflict as big conflict. (Remember how we all used to sit around watching to see if the DVD logo would bounce into the corner of the screen? We did that because we can really get into small stakes conflict.) In many cases, small conflict may be better for showing character development or humorous asides.

Paying attention to smaller conflict will help you keep up the pace of the story. It’s usually not feasible for the entire book to constantly have big, high-stakes conflict taking place. Instead, you can stagger levels of conflict throughout the book. Some parts of the book will focus on small conflict while building up to the bigger conflict.

I like to think of it like a television series, which often do this layering really well. I watch a lot of superhero shows, which generally have a main villain for each season. This is the “big bad," and everything all season leads up to fighting them. In addition to the seasonal villain, these shows also usually have a “villain of the week.