Amping Up Character Tension

This summer I will turn forty-mumble-mumble years old. At this time in my life (says the old, wise one), I have built up a community (or a tribe, as my friend Terri Thayer calls it) of friends with whom I am comfortable and happy, and who help me keep my life interesting and my brain active. When we get together, there’s lots of talking back and forth, sharing of family stories, and laughter. I feel connected and supported.

And if you wrote us into a scene of your book, your readers would be yawning and heading off for a nap. (Well, okay, not right away–we are pretty funny.)

There just isn’t a lot of conflict.

Yes, we’re realistic. Unfortunately, that’s not enough when you’re writing a scene in a story. You need emotion, tension, and some serious problems to deal with. And the characters can’t just be talking about problems; they need to be experiencing some. At that moment.

How do you add conflict to character interaction?

  • Give your characters conflicting goals. I’m not just talking about their big, story goals, but their goals for the scene. What does each of them want right there and then, and where do the goals clash?
  • Add a third character to a scene. Remember how, when your child was small, you were wary of setting up a “triangle” playdate? Guess why. The goals/needs of two people have equal weight. A third person can pick a side, making the scale off-balance. They can give supremacy to one person and put the other on the defensive. Nice!
  • Give one character authority over the other. Bosses, parents, teachers, venture capitalist—they hold the power and can “make” another person do something they don’t want. Anger and resentment, much? Go for it.
  • Weave in a secret. If you want complicated dialog, with some tension, let one character know something the other doesn’t. Are they using it to bribe the second character? Are they desperate to keep that character from finding out? Does the second character suspect the secret? Push/pull…conflict.
  • Add a deadline. People with all the time in the world to talk, accomplish something, or make a plan can, well…take all that time. They can be relaxed, chit-chatty, patient. If they’ve got five minutes to make a decision, though, and they don’t even have all the facts they need—they get rushed, impatient, frustrated, and argumentative. Can you hear the dialog?

We all know the “rule”–no scenes with characters sitting around a table at the coffeehouse, talking. Frankly, I’m okay with a scene (or maybe two) like this, if it doesn’t send the story, or me, into a slump of slow-pacing, frivolous dialog, and happy friendship. As much as I want that in my own life these days, I do not want it in the books I’m reading. Or writing.

Neither do you. 🙂

What do you do to make your characters less happy with each other, more at odds? Leave a comment and share the tip!


  1. Terri Thayer says:

    Not a lot of conflict? Have you been listening to the same things I have?????

    This is a great list. I often add the third character to the mix. That’s instant tension.


    • beckylevine says:

      That’s conflict in our LIVES, not in our “scenes” together. Or not much, anyway!

      I love triangles.


  2. P. J. Hoover says:

    You post is fantastic! Conflicting motivation! Tension on every page! These are rules I would love to live by 🙂


    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, PJ. I’m reminding myself for revision–I seem to keep writing two-person bland scenes in this first draft. Oh, well, getting the bones down!


  3. Shawna says:

    You, my friend, hit the nail on the head. Tension on every page!

    I was feeling a little bad the other day for everything I was doing to my characters. Poor messed up people. So my only advice is give your characters some faults.


    • beckylevine says:

      I need to do that. So far, the only flaw she’s got is being too whiny and a bit too self-centered. I’m okay with self-confidence, but…! 🙂


  4. ann wilkes says:

    When I start yawning at my own writing, I torture one of my characters. I basically think, “What would totally ruin his day/plan/plot to destroy the universe? Sometimes, I just kill a character. Everyone deals differently with grief.

    I totally agree about the sitting around the table talking thing. That’s one of my pet peeves. Yet, I find myself writing talking heads from time to time. But I know enough now to delete those scenes and put the ideas into action.

    Thanks for the great post. Gonna link to it from SFOO. 😉


    • beckylevine says:

      We all write the talking head scenes. And then we, hopefully, catch them in revision!

      Thanks for the link. 🙂


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