Suspense vs. Conflict

SUSPENSE VS. CONFLICT

Writers often confuse suspense and conflict, or even worse, use the two terms interchangeably, as if they imply the same thing. They don’t. See if you can figure out the element that is employed in each of the two scenes below in order to test your own understanding.

Scene 1 –

George saw his favorite ball sitting on the grassy hill in the middle of the park. He raced over to get it, but before he came close, a dog ran by and scooped it up with its jaw. George chased after the dog, but soon tripped and fell flat on his face. He returned to his feet and broke into a sprint, chasing the dog into the picnic area. George hurdled over families, dodged joggers, and tumbled under frisbees. When he was finally close enough, George launched off his feet and tackled the dog to the ground. He let out a sigh of relief, before a shrill cry reminded George the dog wasn’t his. He stood up, ball in hand, and hurried to escape the mob of angry dog owners chasing after him.

Scene 2 –

She told him not to open the box. She warned him sternly that he was to never, ever, open the box. Still, George stared at it with his eyes fixated upon the single, unbolted latch that held it shut. All he had to do was flip it up and he could finally learn what was inside. So many years, so many sunny afternoons, so many times had he pondered what was inside that box. Never had he a chance to see before, but this day, this bright, beautiful day, George had a chance – his sister was at her friend’s house.

George gulped. It was go-time. There was no backing out of it now. He had already entered her room, and one loud noise would result in a week’s worth of chores, dictated by his mother. He crept closer on his hands and knees. Carefully, and as silently as possible, George flipped open the latch. He couldn’t help but scream after what he saw. His mom came running, and he knew an incredible punishment was in store for him. It didn’t matter – he was too angry to care. Inside the small box was a single note, written by his sister.

“Got ya.”

* * *

Figured it out? The first scene employs the use of conflict. The second suspense.

Conflict is anything that gets in the way of the protagonist and her objective. Suspense is information withheld.

In the first scene, George’s objective is to attain his favorite ball. The elements of conflict involved are the dog, the families picnicking, the frisbees, and George’s own clumsy feet. These are all elements of external conflict. Internal conflict is equally important, but we’ll save that for another day.

In the second scene, the elements of suspense are George’s sister’s refusal to tell him what is inside the box, the latch, and the prospect of his mother overhearing his sneaking around in his sister’s room.

Both suspense and conflict are extremely important elements of writing, and one would be wise to employ each element into every scene that they write. 

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script analyst for specscout.com

– author of A New Kingdom

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