Monday, October 4

My Three Literary Loves: Conflict, Tension and Intrigue

Imagine you’re sitting in a room full of writers and someone asks:

"What makes a good novel?"

Hands go up and people call out:

"Well written characters."

"Plot twists."

"An original take on an old story."

"Good grammar."

"Showing, not telling."

All good answers, all relevant to writing a good novel.

There are three things I always look for when I read a novel:
  • Conflict
  • Tension
  • Intrigue
They are the magical spices for storytelling. Without them, your novel will be bland.


There are plenty of books out there. A reader has their pick of why yours? I'm sure you've spent plenty of time thinking of ideas and coming up with a clever premise but what will make sure that your story catches the eye of the reader and compels them to keep reading until the end?

You need to keep your reader intrigued. They have to wonder, "What will happen next?" They have to care enough about your protagonist to want to find out.

The first thing you have to consider is your hook. The first sentence of your novel is one of the most important parts because if it sucks, I'm not going to want to read any more. No weather, no boring description, no backstory. These things are not interesting and they do not insert a question in the reader's mind.

The first thing to remember is that something should happen in the first sentence of your novel. It is the "inciting incident" - the moment that propels the rest of the story into motion.

Someone is stabbed. Who was stabbed? Why? Who stabbed them?

The protagonist runs away. Why? Where to? From whom?

A truce is made between two characters. Who are they? What is the truce? Why must it be made?

It all depends on what your story is as to where you begin it but make sure you begin it where the story actually starts and not way-back-when. Information should not be dumped at the beginning. Tease the reader by putting questions in their mind.

Intrigue does not end with the hook, however. That is just the first taste the reader gets. If you want them to continue flipping the pages, eager to find out what happens next, you have to keep inserting these little questions in their mind all the way through the novel.

Make sure that your intrigue is plausible. Don't keep information from your reader just because you can. You don't want your protagonist wandering around for the entire novel trying to find the answer to a great mystery, only to discover that every single person knew the answer all along and just didn't feel like saying anything. Of course, it is fine for characters to keep information from your protagonist, so long as they have a plausible reason for doing so.

A great way that some authors keep their readers intrigued is by writing in little cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. Find a way that works for you.


Conflict is what gives your story pizzazz. It's all very well for everyone to get along, for the lovers to never spar, and for your protagonist to be handed everything on a silver platter, but who wants to read about that?

You character needs to have obstacles to overcome. A character who battles to gain knowledge/acceptance/money/love is a lot easier for the reader to respect and relate to.

Inner conflict. Your character might have insecurities they need to overcome. They might want to move to another country to start a new life, but also feel that they should stay behind to help look after their family. Inner conflict is often personified in films by the little cartoon angel and devil who appear on the protagonist's shoulders. This doesn't mean that the two reasons that conflict with one another in the character's mind have to be good and evil aside. Both things could be good but unable to co-exist, or at least not easily.

People cannot agree all the time. Everyone has different opinions and people quarrel and fight. Conflict between characters does not mean that you have to have a brawl on every page. A mother who tries to shelter her daughter from the dangers of the world may have good intentions, but the daughter might feel smothered. It can be anything from politics between nations, to brothers arguing over whether their father should be buried or cremated.

Creating interesting characters is one thing but when you put them in difficult situations, or have them come up against one another, it shows the reader who they truly are and makes them even more interesting to read about. Riddle your plot with conflict and your story will be all the richer for it.


Intrigue is delicious, conflict is a necessity, but tension is what gets under the reader's skin. Tension is as much to do with your ability to tell the story, and your sentence structure, as anything else. You have your intrigue, you have your conflict, but if you write la-dee-da sentences that drag on forever, it's like watering down a rich wine.

Tension can manifest in many different ways. It's not just all down to how you edit your story - so that it doesn't run on forever or read as too jerky - but do remember to read your story aloud to get a feeling of how well it flows.

A lot of the time, tension is unlike conflict because it is the things left unsaid and not acted on, that still remain between two or more people, times, or elements. It is like the sun watching the sky storm, or a community with an underlying hostility to one another that is never spoken of.

You need to think of how tension manifests itself in your story. Not every moment has to be full-on, but there should be some variation of it throughout. Think of an elastic band, stretching. It tightens, and loosens a little, and tightens again, until you reach the climax of the novel and...snap!

Conflict. Tension. Intrigue. They are the spices for great story-telling and a must in your novel, or short story, as they are equally important in shorter fiction. They may be faded or falter in a first draft, but rewriting is where you can strengthen them.

So take some time to pick up your manuscript and add some spice in the form of my three literary loves.


Stina Lindenblatt said...

You can have great characters, but if your pages don't drip with these three elements, no one will keep reading beyond chapter one. ;)

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! For sure, writing comes to life when the characters face conflict, tension, and intrigue. Oh yeah, that's good stuff. :)