Creating Tension: Can There Be Too Much Conflict in a Story?

Studio shot of a young couple fightingThe other evening I was watching Scandal. Admittedly I came late to the party, missing the first season, then watching it on demand and jumping into season two enthusiastically. But the other night I very nearly turned it off. Aside from the constant snarl on Olivia’s face—which irritates me to no end—the relentless arguing, fighting and violence displaying the characters as devious, abrasive, confrontational, cruel, disloyal, greedy, hypocritical, hostile, manipulative, melodramatic, self-destructive, self-indulgent, unethical, immoral and well, just plain evil, resulted in me asking the question: Can there be too much conflict in a story? (Okay, I turned to my copy of the NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS to fully state my case.)

Every writer knows that tension and conflict are essential when writing fiction and even in much of nonfiction. It’s what keeps your reader turning the page and I can’t deny I love a story that gets your pulse racing. But the episode of Scandal the other night made me angry. There was so much yelling and aggressive body language that I discovered I had my jaw set and my teeth clenched. I wanted to scream! “Stop it! Stop it! Settle down. Can’t you sit and work out your differences like intelligent adults?” I mean, he is the President of the United States! The leader of the free world! (Something he tells us in nearly every episode.) He should negotiate with dignity, be calm under pressure, patient, and use logic to navigate treacherous waters.

This led me to wonder if perhaps we’ve been influenced too much by reality TV. Ugh, I truly dislike reality TV. When my college-age sons lived home, they coerced me into watching shows like: The Osbournes, The Biggest Loser, American Idol, and a few others. I relished this time with them and was truly interested in what captured their attention. Initially I found it mildly entertaining, although much of it was difficult to watch. I’m uncomfortable seeing people humiliate themselves in front of others or being humiliated by someone else. I couldn’t, and still don’t, understand why people find this funny. I wanted to look away, and I did, often. I’ll admit that watching someone slip on a banana peel does make me laugh, but I’m not proud of it and I only feel okay if someone 3d render of cartoon character with banana peeldoesn’t get hurt. I actually wrote to the Ellen DeGeneres show once. She has a habit of scaring people, which is often hilarious, but the time she did it to Taylor Swift, the poor child slipped off her ridiculously high-heeled boots and landed on her keister, hard. I was not only embarrassed for her but I bet she had a serious bruise on her ass to take home as a reminder of Ellen’s prank.

And then there’s this trend of killing off major characters. I didn’t see Will’s death coming the other night on The Good Wife, or the cruel, bloody, and violent death of James on Scandal a few weeks back. There are countless others and it’s been a trending topic on talk shows. Have we become so addicted to the rush? The shock value? The violence? Don’t get me started on that—a topic for another post.

I’m probably not typical of many people, I really hate confrontation and although I can stand up for myself and negotiate peace treaties (20 years as an assistant principal and handling discipline for 11th graders honed that skill) I don’t really want to spend my time watching TV or reading stories that elicit that amount of anxiety for me.

I don’t have an answer to my question. Maybe I’m just getting old. My mantra is pretty much: Why can’t we all just get along? Negotiate agreements when we can and just accept or at least tolerate the differences when we can’t.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as too much conflict? Or perhaps it’s just the way we express it in our writing. I don’t know…

Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

5 thoughts on “Creating Tension: Can There Be Too Much Conflict in a Story?”

  1. Well done, Caryn! Sharon and Susan – I, too, do not appreciate the overdone conflict stories, but clearly we are in the minority. My TV is off more than it is on these days because of this, and I worry about the impact on undeveloped minds. The concept of conflict seems to be drummed into us writers, and those of us who have a natural distaste for it seem to have a more difficult time, but it is indeed necessary. I think I would rather get scooped up by internal conflict (the idea of being put into an impossible situation) than a physical one. One that would challenge my own mind (indeed my character) and make me ponder long after the show is over.

    1. I like your observation about internal conflict. I embrace that idea much more than outright fighting with my characters. That slow burn, the thoughtful problem-solving, making a mistake and then having to work your way out of it. Maybe it’s mostly the tension I like, keeping my reader on the edge of her seat…that’s way more fun to write! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Caryn, you sound like a Libran (like me). I know that goal, motivation, and conflict are necessary in every scene, but like you, I’ve wondered how much is too much? How much is enough? And since my life is typically pretty stable and even, does that mean my life scenes aren’t important? I also wonder if the escalation of violence, shocking events, and news coverage of them is beyond the pale. Tough times to create an environment of serenity for our kids. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    1. I guess I attribute my attitude to my mom. She always said that if you don’t like something then do something to change it. If you can’t, well then move on, nobody wants to hear you complain about it. Watching or reading about people fighting, screaming and yelling, just doesn’t do it for me. I agree with you, conflict doesn’t mean it has to come to fighting or violence. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s nice to know there are others of like mind out there.

  3. I also get disgusted with the violence – and wonder whether producers keep on ramping it up for those that need their fix. Fargo? I thought it was going to be excellent – but, no more. Blacklist??? OTT …
    I love anxiety in books .. eg much enjoyed ‘We are Water’ by Wally Lamb. That got my pulse racing as did The Goldfinch .. dark and very psychological. Some violence yes, but not gratuitous.
    Garden of Eden Blog

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