Conflict vs. Tension in Your Writing

Okay, everyone, The Literary Mom has been doing lots of “mom” stuff, and is exhausted. Please enjoy this article I wrote last year about conflict vs. tension in your writing, and have a nice Wednesday!

One of the most important elements in fiction writing is conflict. You can’t write a good story without it, period. But conflict has a counterpart that is equally important; tension. What’s that you say? Aren’t tension and conflict the same thing? No, they’re not, and here’s why: tension is what your readers experience when waiting for the conflict they know is coming.

As I get nearer and nearer the black moment (You don’t know what that is? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post!) in my NaNo novel, I’ve been thinking more and more about tension and conflict. Today, I had a breakthrough. I realized I had my two final scenes in the wrong order. The way I had it originally had the most conflict. However, today I realized that if I reversed their order, it will actually increase the reader tension. Reader tension is what keeps the reader turning the page, even when it’s one in the morning and they know they have to get up at six for work.

Sometimes, you have to hint to your readers that a big conflict is on the way and then delay it. The delay is what creates the reader tension. They know it’s coming, but when? They continue reading, breathless and anxious, waiting for that ugly conflict to pop out from behind a bush and scream “BOO!!”

How to Outline a Plot For Your Novel

Today is going to be very busy, as it is my son’s well-baby doctor visit and we have to drive an hour and a half to get there (and to come back). I’ve also been working on plotting out a rough outline for my second story in my YA fantasy series. Because of that, I thought I’d re-post my article on how to outline a plot.

Only three more days until NaNoWriMo starts! Have you outlined a plot for your novel? Here’s how!


There are lots of different ways to plot a novel. Some authors have extremely detailed outlines that are almost as long as their novels. Some authors don’t plot out a single thing, and just see where their writing leads. Then there is everything in between. I tried all the different methods before I finally settled on one I liked. I thought I would share my insights with you.


The first three novels I tried to write, I didn’t plot anything. All my story ideas start with a spark, as I call it, and then I build the characters. A “spark” is basically an opening scene, a nice piece of dialogue, or an interesting event. Those three novels never got beyond 10,000 words. I always got to a point where I had written myself into a corner and couldn’t figure out where to go from there.


The next novel I wrote was the first one I finished. For this one, I plotted out every single scene (around 50 I think) on note cards, shuffled them around until they were in the perfect order, and then wrote the whole novel, sticking faithfully to my outline. Yes, I finished it, but I hated every moment of it. There was no excitement, no joyous flash of inspiration that would lead you into a new direction. The writing was fine. You couldn’t tell I hated the process. But it was still a horrible eight months.


The method I use now, and the one that works for me the best, is in between those two extremes. I have my spark, I have my characters, and then I choose ten or so things I want to happen in the plot, including the last scene. The last scene is extremely important to keep you on track. As long as you know where you are going with the whole book, you’re free to explore as many interesting side trips as you want. I have never suffered from writer’s block since I happened across this method, and I still get to have the fun and excitement of having spontaneous flashes of plot delivered by my “Muse”. It’s the best of both worlds.

What is Voice in Literature?

Ask any agent or editor what they’re looking for in a writer and they’ll say “a fresh, new voice.” But then ask that same agent or editor what voice is and they’ll probably look at you for a second before saying, “I know it when I see it.” Honestly. That’s the standard answer. So a few weeks ago, I set out to discover what exactly voice is.


The first thing I did was a Google search. I didn’t find a single, helpful thing. Hmm… I then read every writing guide with a section on voice, as well as analyzing novels that are described as having good voices. Here’s what I think:


There are two parts to voice: 1. the author’s voice and 2. the character’s voice. In most books the two are probably equally important, except for in YA novels. I feel that the character’s voice becomes more important, especially in novels that are written in first person. Now that I think about it, I suppose the character’s voice is most important in ALL first-person novels.


The author’s voice is the style in which one writes. For example, Nora Roberts writes in lush, descriptive, and lyrical sentences. I could pick up any one of her romance novels and almost immediately identify her as the author. Earnest Hemmingway writes with short, concise, and to the point sentences. Same goes for his books. Janet Evanovich’s voice in her Stephanie Plum books is fast, fun, funny, and a little racy. These are their author’s voices.


The character’s voice is basically how the main character views the world. What words do they use when talking, or describing things? How does the character speak (short, breathless sentences, or long, rambling ones)? What are the character’s emotions and how do they describe or show them? How might they compare one thing to another?  For example, an older person might compare a bright sunset to a bomb bursting over his aircraft carrier during the Second World War, whereas a teenager might compare it to the flash of fire in her boyfriend’s eyes.


As far as I can determine, these are the things that make up voice, and the things editors and agents are looking for. I hope this helps!

Writing: Fiction Phobias

Well, a good part of my Saturday evening was spent in Urgent Care with my son. He had a small fever, rash, and was limping, but hadn’t been injured in anyway. Ugh. He seems like he’s much better today, but we go back to the Dr. this afternoon. The whole thing got me thinking about themes in fiction, and what I will and won’t write about.


I’m not a superstitious person by any means. I’ve opened umbrellas indoors, walked under ladders, stepped on cracks, petted black cats, and broken mirrors, all without the slightest twinge. (Well, maybe the mirror gave me a teeny-tiny twinge. I mean, come on seven years is a LONG time!) But I’ve got one huge superstition that involves writing and, to some extent, reading as well.


Have you ever read Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult? It’s an excellent book, one I would highly recommend. The synopsis from Jodi’s website reads: “When Charlotte and Sean O’Keefe’s daughter, Willow, is born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, they are devastated – she will suffer hundreds of broken bones as she grows, a lifetime of pain.”

Stupid me, I read it while I was six months pregnant with my son. For the remaining three months, I had a secret, hidden, but very strong fear that he would be born with osteogenesis imperfecta. (He’s fine, by the way, beautiful and wonderful!) I know, right? You probably just laughed out loud at me.

I haven’t had any more problems with books I’ve read, but I’ve found there are some topics I won’t write about, manly involving children, illness, and death, all because I have some vaguely discomforting idea that I might be tempting fate. Like someone is sitting there, monitoring me and thinking, “You’re not allowed to be too happy, and you’ve passed the allowable threshold of happiness, so now we have to take it all away.”

So I’ve revealed my writing superstitions. How about you? Do you have any?



My Two Favorite Words

Yesterday, I typed my two favorite words: THE END!!!!! So my rough draft is finally done. Now it’s on to revisions. Right now, I’m thinking a lot about my characters and the arcs they’ll be following over the course of the story.

My protagonist is a teen girl, and there is a romantic subplot, which got me thinking a lot about male heroes in novels. Hence the poll! Let me know what you think about male heroes, what you think is most important to make them believable, to make a romance believable. I’d appreciate it!

Writer’s Block or Writer’s Haze?

Everyone always talks about writer’s block, what happens when you get it, how to defeat it, how to avoid it all together. Writer’s block is a pain in the butt; staring at a blank page, completely out of ideas, not able to write even a single word. It sucks.


I’m lucky in the sense that I hardly ever get writer’s block. Do you know what my real problem is? Writer’s haze. What? You’ve never heard of it? I’d be willing to bet that you’ve had it though.


Have you ever sat down to write, and then immediately realized your brain feels foggy, confused, like you can hardly string a sentence together? You manage to slog through it, pulling each word out of your brain like a greased pig through a dog door (a Chihuahua’s dog door at that). You might get your quota of words done for the day, but they feel dry, uninspired, like it’s nothing but crap. That’s writer’s haze. You can thank me later for coining the phrase.


There are lots of reasons for writer’s haze; not enough sleep, not enough caffeine, overworking, disliking the project you’re working on, etc. However, there aren’t many cures. Other then getting enough sleep and a good pot of coffee or two, the only thing I’ve found that helps is loving your project. Like, I-can’t-wait-to-wake-up-so-I-can-work-on-it-in-the-morning love. When you’re really excited, the haze almost completely disappears.


You’ll always have episodes of it. Sometimes, the best thing to do on those days is just walk away, go for a long walk and come back later, or even the next day. If you’re still feeling The Haze, you might be working on the wrong project.

Writing YA Novels: a High School Do-over?

Someone recently said to me that they loved to write YA novels because it was like getting to live high school all over again. I literally shuddered. If that was why I wrote YA novels, I would never touch a keyboard again.


Despite the fact that Hollywood repeatedly tells us that our high school years are our golden years, I have to disagree. If you gave me a million dollars, I wouldn’t go back and relive it again. Don’t get me wrong, high school wasn’t horrible, it just isn’t as wonderful as my life is now. I mean, I guess there are some things I might do differently, some misunderstandings I’d want to clear up, some people I’d want apologies from. But to go back and relive it… Ugh. I just got creepy-crawly goose bumps.


I think the reason I write YA novels is because I’m trying to reach out to that girl I was. To all the other girls and guys out there who are hiding the fact that they’d rather gouge out their eyeballs then go to another day of class. Or maybe, I’m trying to give them an escape, a place where teenagers like them get to have their dreams come true, or make peace with their parents, or realize the BIG MISTAKE before they make it.


If I could give one message to all the teens out there, it would be this: Life gets better. It might take a while, but it does. I promise.

How Poetry Can Help Your Fiction


I don’t write much poetry although I’ve dabbled in it. I’ve always been a fiction kind of girl. There is one good reason to dust off the iambic pentameter: poignant descriptions.


Sometimes, I feel like my writing becomes a little flat, a little muddy. That’s when I know it’s time to write a little poetry.

 The sparseness of poetry forces you to consider each word carefully. You only have so many words to paint a picture, emotion, or idea in your readers mind. You weigh each word; is this what I really want to convey? In prose, you have pages to say what you want. Mark Twain said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Being wordy is easy. To be austere with your words is much harder.


Spend a few days writing poetry, even if it will never see the light of day. Your fiction writing will thank you, I promise.

Family and Writing

My family has gathered together for a pre-thanksgiving vacation,which has made my writing a little slow (try non-existent). In a sense, though, time spent with your extended family is excellent fodder for your writing. Need some odd characters for your novel? Look no further than that one oddball every family has. What? Wait? What do you mean I”m the oddball? No, I’m pretty sure it’s you…

Need some good dialogue? Here’s a good exercise. Crack open a couple of bottles of wine, wait until everyone is sloshed, then get out your notebook and pen. Then, when the wine -induced haze wears off and your novel is on bookshelves, swear up and down that they gave you permission to use their conversation verbatim. It’s not your fault if they don’t remember.

Need some good descriptions? When your family is driving you nuts and you can’t take it a moment longer, take a long walk (or snowshoe like I do!) through the woods, storing up descriptive words and scaring the local wildlife by yelling at the top of your lungs to relieve stress and frustration. Ah, the joys of family vacations…

The Black Moment and Resolution

The black moment is a device that’s used a lot in fiction. Not all books use it, but I think they should. It’s one of the best ways to heighten reader tension. So, what is the black moment?

Right before you resolve your novel, there should be a moment when whatever your character needs seems completely unattainable.  In a romance novel, this is where the heroine and hero seem like they’re not going to be able to make their relationship work. In a thriller, the hero might  have reached an insurmountable obstacle and seems ready to give up. In a paranormal novel, the flesh-eating zombies might have the heroine trapped with no way out, her death and subsequent consumption by the zombies seemingly inevitable.

The black moment usually happens in the chapter before the very last chapter. Then, you must have a resolution. This is where the heroine realizes she needs to learn to forgive and lets the hero into her heart. Or maybe, the heroine finds a loose pipe, bashes the zombies brains in, and makes her escape. Whatever. Just make sure that the resolution isn’t based on a happy coincidence, i.e. “And then a zombie-killing rain fell from the sky and I was saved.” While that might happen in real life (the happy coincidence, not the zombie rain), it can never EVER happen in your writing. Readers hate it and will never buy another one of your books again.