A bit of writing advice I’ve seen oft-repeated around the blogosphere is that every scene should have conflict, and ideally there should be two layers of conflict. The example I’ve seen given is if you have a scene with two police officers racing to reach a crime, say, then you should also have them arguing with each other along the way, for instance.
The trouble with this advice, or at least the trouble that I had with it, was my interpretation of the word conflict. To me, conflict always implied two entities butting heads – two characters, or a character and their environment, or whatever. Conflict implied discord, and so I had difficulty buying into the advice because obviously not every scene is going to have discord. Maybe I don’t want my police officers to be arguing.
As I’ve written more, and read more, I’ve come to realize that the word they really want is tension. Every scene should have tension. There needs to be an element of the unknown to the sequence of events in the scene, along with a reason for the reader to care how it ends. This is what keeps the reader turning pages, the need to find out what happens next both in terms of plot points but also within each scene.
Another bit of advice I’ve seen from time to time is that something should change within each scene, even if it’s just what a character knows, or how they feel about something. And that’s part of what builds tension – watching something change and seeing how the change affects the character and/or the character’s situation.
So if your cops are arguing just for the sake of conflict, because of a clash in personality, that’s not going to have the desired effect. If they’re arguing because one is accusing the other of something, that will – readers will want to know how this changes their working relationship, and what the accused does about it. If they’re arguing because they had different opinions on what actions to take to apprehend the bad guy, readers will want to know who was right.
But you can have tension without conflict, too. The cops – without arguing – made a decision on how to catch the bad guy and now they have to see if it’ll work. In a quiet moment of surveillance one cop shares sad details about their past the second has never heard – and how does the second react? After working together several years, cop one finally asks cop two out to dinner – how does it go?
The level of tension in a scene/story is typically what makes it fast-paced or slower-paced. If most of your scenes have the tension involving big changes or big stakes, it’s going to read faster than if the tension is more low-key throughout. I’m definitely a big-change kinda writer, and my stories tend to be more fast-paced as a result.