“Tension staples reader’s eyes to the page.” –Ralph Fletcher
“The three greatest skills of dramatic writing are conflict, conflict, and conflict.” –James Frye
Readers keep reading when they want to know what’s going to happen next. Conflict, resulting from your main character’s struggle to solve his problem, is what keeps readers asking. Conflict in stories falls into three main categories: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Nature, and Person vs. Self (Inner conflict).
Person versus person conflicts pit person against person. In person versus nature conflicts a person battles against a natural force such as a snowstorm or a tornado. (Gary Paulsen’s survival novel, Hatchet, is a good example.) In person versus self conflicts, a person tries to reconcile opposing inner forces or desires. It is not unusual to find all types of conflict in a single piece of writing. For example, in Bill Martin’s picture book The Ghost-Eye Tree, the main character argues with his sister (person vs. person), encounters the “ghost-eye tree” (person vs. nature), and struggles to control his fear (person vs. self).
To maintain tension in a piece of fiction the conflicts you introduce need to keep your main character moving forward, as he tries to solve his problem. Pacing helps keep story tension strong. You can pass quickly over unimportant events or even skip them. On the other hand, you can slow down and draw out the really important events–the events that will change the outcome of the story.
In a story about a boy who has lost his dog, readers’ interest is heightened by having the boy look for the dog in the very first paragraph. We don’t need to know that the boy woke up that morning, got dressed, brushed his teeth, etc. And if several days pass with no leads as to the dog’s whereabouts, that fact can be summarized. Then we can jump to the next important scene:
Though Josh had nailed posters with his phone number and Spot’s picture on every sign post within several blocks of home, days passed without any leads as to Spot’s whereabouts. Josh went through the motions of school and soccer practice and evening chores as if he were a zombie. Finally, five days after Spot’s disappearance, a woman called. “Is your dog still missing?” she asked.
“Yes,” Josh said. His heart beat fast. Had the woman found him?
“I think I may have seen him this morning,” the woman said, “running down Delaney Street.”
Teaching suggestions: Ask students to look for and discuss examples of tension and pacing in the books they are reading, or in a book you are reading aloud. What plot type most closely matches their book? Model the creation of a story using one of the three plot types described above.
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com