Creative Story Writing Tips

Conflicts, Cliffhangers & Climaxes

Creative story writing tips on writing a book filled with surprises, suspense and a satisfying ending: here's how to write a story that engages readers...

Creative Story Writing Tips #1: Types of Conflict

Conflict in a story creates tension and excitement. The conflict may be internal (within the protagonist himself or external (between characters, or between a character and her circumstances or environment).

Conflict within a person: show the character struggling with his/her own fears or weaknesses. For example, give your protagonist faults that your audience can identify with. This draws readers into the story as they begin to feel for your hero/heroine, sharing intimately in his/her setbacks and victories.

Conflict between characters: for example, clashes between persons or groups with conflicting beliefs or loyalties; or personality clashes between the protagonist and another character, or between two strong-willed characters; or competition between rivals in a sport, profession or love triangle.

Conflict between characters and their environment: for example, the sole survivor of an airplane crash, marooned on an uninhabited island; or a firefighter battling rising flames to save lives; or adventurers who set out to sail the seas or trek across deserts and end up getting more than they bargained for.

Creative Story Writing Tips #2: Layers of Conflict

A story may contain more than one kind of conflict: for example, the protagonist may be fighting his inner fears while trying to win a race or some other competition, which decides whether he gets the girl (who may not turn out to be the one he really wants after all) - and all this in a hostile environment.

Varieties and layers of conflict enrich a story but must be handled carefully. Vary the pitch and intensity of the conflict at different stages of your story, sometimes underplaying it, at other times building up to a climax.

A piece of writing that is always keyed up to fever-pitch wears the reader out; paradoxically, constant excitement becomes monotonous after a while. It's better to have the conflict rise to a peak, subside, and then start boiling up all over again.

Creative Story Writing Tips #3: Cliffhangers

Soap operas can be addictive. Every episode ends on a cliffhanger - a dilemma, a revelation, a twist in the turn of events - to keep the audience coming back for more.

That's also a great way to end each chapter - on a cliffhanger that'll get your audience all agog and eager to find out what happens next.

Begin each new chapter by playing out the tension. Don't resolve the dilemma straightaway, keep readers guessing for a while. Stretch out the suspense and let the tension build up. However, don't leave the matter hanging for too long, either; otherwise readers will lose interest in the story.

Creative Story Writing Tips #4: Cliffhanger Peaks and Valleys

Your cliffhangers should resemble a series of peaks and valleys: rising suspense followed by an easing of the tension, then up we go again. Also, your peaks should get progressively higher - a bigger conflict, more excitement each time - until they reach a climax. Let's take a simple example of this:

Three little pigs set out to build homes for themselves. First pig builds a house of straw. Along comes Mr Wolf with the lusty lungs. Suspense builds as our villain huffs and puffs away, and peaks as he blows the house down.

Second pig builds his house of wood. Second cliffhanger as Wolf puffs away - and yes! Second round goes to Mr Wolf too.

Third pig builds a brick house. Tension intensifies as we wait to see if this house will go the way of the others. A sigh of relief: the house stands strong and safe.

Then comes the climax: Wolf climbs chimney; tension peaks. Wolf goes down chimney, and there's a little surprise for him at the end of it. It's a tale with a roaring hot, satisfying ending.

Creative Story Writing Tips #5: Vary the Pace

Vary the pace of your story: sometimes fast, piling on the thrills; at other times slow, to give a breathing space and build up to the next cliffhanger.

You can control the pace of your writing by varying the lengths of your sentences: the shorter the sentence, the quicker the tempo. Compare these two examples:

A secret drawer! He jerked it open. Only photos - but wait, what's this? An envelope. He tore at it and pulled out a paper. The lost will - he'd found it!

Why, it was a secret drawer! So that was what the old man had been trying to tell him. He tugged at the handle but it stuck fast. He gave it a sharp jerk and a pull, and out it tumbled, crashing to the floor. He sifted through the few photographs in it; nothing else...what a disappointment! No, wait a minute, what's this slipped into the bottom? He fished out the envelope, tore it open with trembling fingers, and pulled out the yellowed piece of paper. He knew at once, without even looking at it, that he had found the lost will.

Mix short, clipped sentences with longer ones to spin out the mystery and suspense, as in the examples below.

Creative Story Writing Tips #6: Mystery Builds Suspense

In this episode from Jane Eyre, the heroine is awakened by a mysterious scream in the night:

Good God! What a cry!

The night - its silence - its rest, was rent in twain by a savage, a sharp, a shrilly sound that ran from end to end of Thornfield Hall...

It came out of the third storey; for it passed overhead. And overhead - yes, in the room just above my chamber-ceiling - I now heard a struggle: a deadly one it seemed from the noise; and a half-smothered voice shouted -

"Help! help! help!" three times rapidly.

"Will no one come?" it cried; and then, while the staggering and stamping went on wildly, I distinguished through plank and plaster -

"Rochester! Rochester! for God's sake, come!"

Notice how the author, Charlotte Bronte, varies the lengths of her sentences to build up the tension: short, dramatic utterances that carry the action forward, interspersed with longer sentences to flesh out the scene and prolong the suspense.

Creative Story Writing Tips #7: Fear Intensifies Suspense

In the following scene from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, the suspense turns on flight from imminent, terrible danger. Here again, short and long sentences unite to evoke an atmosphere of frenzied terror and tense, long-drawn-out anxiety among fugitives fleeing for their lives:

There is terror in the carriage, there is weeping, there is the heavy breathing of the insensible traveller.

"Are we not going too slowly? Can they not be induced to go faster?" asks Lucie, clinging to the old man.

"It would seem like flight, my darling. I must not urge them too much; it would rouse suspicion."

"Look back, look back, and see if we are pursued!"

"The road is clear, my dearest. So far, we are not pursued..."

Out of the open country, in again among ruinous buildings, solitary farms, dye-works, tanneries, and the like, cottages in twos and threes, avenues of leafless trees. Have these men deceived us, and taken us back by another road? Is not this the same place twice over? Thank Heaven, no. A village. Look back, look back, and see if we are pursued! Hush! the posting-house.

Creative Story Writing #8: Dialogue Carries Emotion, Action and Drama

Cut out long-winded narratives; use short, sharp bursts of dialogue to carry the action along. Here's how Alexandre Dumas does it, in this passage from The Three Musketeers:

"Now," said he, "will you come?"

"I am ready."

Milady mounted upon a chair and passed the upper part of her body through the window. She saw the young officer suspended over the abyss by a ladder of ropes. For the first time an emotion of terror reminded her that she was a woman.

The dark space frightened her.

"I expected this," said Felton.

"It's nothing, it's nothing!" said Milady. "I will descend with my eyes shut..."

Not a second was to be lost. Milady passed her two arms round Felton's neck, and let herself slip out of the window. Felton began to descend the ladder slowly, step by step. Despite the weight of two bodies, the blast of the hurricane shook them in the air.

All at once Felton stopped.

"What is the matter?" asked Milady.

"Silence," said Felton, "I hear footsteps."

Notice how the short, clipped dialogue conveys the characters' desperation and sense of urgency, while the longer narrative sentences serve to spin out the suspense?

Show, don't tell: let your characters speak for themselves; their different voices and personalities will create tension and make your story come alive for readers.


For more creative story writing tips, go to Sparks Fly with Dramatic Dialogue


For more tips on writing a good story, visit Creative Story Writing Tips: Steps to Write a Book and How to Write a Story

For creative story writing techniques and tips on writing fiction, visit:
Creative Writing Tips: Want to Write Well?

Creative Writing Tips: Top Secrets of Top Authors

Creative Writing Tips: Effective Word Choice

Creative Writing Tips: Imagery Helps Readers See, Hear, Feel

Creative Writing Tips: Dramatic Dialogue

Creative Writing Tips: Vibrant Verbs

Writing for children or teenagers? For more creative story writing tips, visit How to Write Stories Kids and Teens Want to Read.

Legal issues concerning writers: for tips on how to write a book without getting sued, go to Avoid Defamation of Character

Return from Creative Story Writing to Creative Writing: Write to Win Hearts.


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