Conflict: It’s what makes a plot a plot, right? Well, maybe. Just about every how-to-write book ever penned will drill you on the importance of conflict. And indeed, what you’re told is not wrong. But today I want to look at it from a slightly different angle.
Consider a scene in which your protagonist gets into an argument with a stranger in a bar. They step outside and engage in a bout of fisticuffs. Noses are bloodied, knuckles bruised. And then, when they’re both so weary they can hardly lift their arms, one of them says, “Ah, hell, what are we fighting about, anyway?” They embrace one another and stagger back into the bar, each of them insisting on buying the other a drink.
Was there conflict in that scene? Technically, yes. You can’t have a fist fight without conflict. And yet it amounted to nothing. Nothing was at stake in their fight, and nothing was resolved, because nothing needed to be resolved. Maybe there’s a plot point, if they start as strangers and this is how they become fast friends, with consequences that appear later. But it’s not conflict.
I’ve started thinking that a better term to use, when developing or evaluating a plot, is tension. What is the source of tension? That a father despises his son? That a seemingly wealthy man is secretly bankrupt? That a child has been kidnapped? The possibilities are endless — and none of them can be resolved with a fist fight.
A deeper analysis suggests that there are two types of tension — intrinsic and extrinsic. By this I mean that the source of tension will be either inside your lead character (it’s intrinsic to the character’s life), or outside, in the lead’s environment.
When the tension is intrinsic, your lead character must resolve the tension. Failure to do so will lead to physical death, a tragically destroyed life, or deep emotional pain. When the tension is extrinsic, the lead may feel perhaps some lingering regret, but his or her life will not be altered in any meaningful way.
The classic murder mystery uses extrinsic tension. If Miss Marple — or, for that matter, Lew Archer — fails to unmask the murderer, nothing in her or his life will be much changed. Even in a story as epic as Lord of the Rings, the tension is arguably extrinsic. At any point Frodo could say, “Oh, this is just too much trouble. Here, you take the ring.” His personal investment is minimal.
In a thriller, on the other hand, if the lead character fails to solve the plot problem, death and dismemberment will swiftly follow. I don’t read a lot of thrillers, so I don’t have a good example at my fingertips. E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, however, is a decent example of intrinsic tension in a literary novel. The point of tension, which unfolds very gradually, is whether Lucy will marry the wrong man. There seems to be no way for her to avoid it! The tension is intrinsic because her life will be irrevocably affected by the marriage.
Writers of mysteries employ some shopworn methods to create a pretense of intrinsic tension. The police lieutenant can be relied on to threaten to get the private detective’s license revoked. Sometimes the detective will actually have handcuffs slapped on, or will be beaten up by the bad guys (but see the bit about fist fights, above).
In a cozy mystery, the standard method for introducing what appears to be intrinsic tension is for the victim or the wrongly accused to be someone the sleuth cares deeply about. This increases the sleuth’s emotional involvement in the story, but really the tension is still extrinsic. The endangered-loved-one ploy only produces intrinsic tension if the endangered loved one is an actual spouse or the sleuth’s own child. A sister, a cousin, a stepchild? No, that’s still extrinsic.
I’m belaboring the point because I’m trying to come up with a plot for a new mystery. It occurred to me that my last two books (While Caesar Sang of Hercules and a new one that is not yet published) have intrinsic tension. I like intrinsic tension! I enjoy reading mysteries in which the tension is extrinsic, but when it comes time to dream up my own plot, my heart wants something more. Something that grabs the protagonist’s gut and won’t let go.
When I was working on my first novel, many years ago, one of my personal mottoes was, “Put your lead character’s ass in a meat grinder — and then keep turning the crank.” That’s how to do intrinsic tension.