Conflict and tension are essential to every story. Without them, there will be little reader/movie goer interest.
Conflict occurs when the antagonist is stronger than the protagonist, or at the very least, seems stronger.
For example, in the movie "Signs" there are two "enemies" of the Mel Gibson character, God (for allowing his wife to be killed) and the aliens who are trying to conquer the earth and destroy his family. Obviously, God, if He ever were an enemy to a human being, since He is all powerful, He would be undefeatable. Aliens capable of traveling through space would be quite threatening too. Huge conflict exists between the "good" protagonist and his enemies God, (who in reality is also good, of course) and the aliens.
Tension happens within a character or between characters when they interact.
Gibson's character experiences tremendous internal tension regarding his enemy "God". He'd been a preacher, but when his wife was killed in an accident, he completely lost his faith. Can you imagine the horrific inner conflict such a man would experience? Viewers watching the movie can identify with him because most of us have experienced betrayal by someone we love, which is what he feels has happened to him.
Palpable tension occurs in the scene where Gibson's theatrical family gathers for their last meal before they must face the showdown with the aliens. Both "enemies" pose imminent threats at this point. The children want to pray before they eat. They don't want to abandon God the way their father has, but the Gibson character's reaction borders on outrage over his children's request. Titanic tension here.
We care about these people, and we are afraid right along with them. We feel what they feel because we've all been in their shoes in some way in our lives, facing enemies, questioning faith, dealing with turning points in our lives, even confronting death.
Near the end of the show, the family faces a single alien as he holds the boy whose asthma has caused his airways to close up. They watch as the alien sprays poisonous gas into the boy's face, and the father is crushed as he watches his "enemy" God take from him another person he loves. Asthma or poisonous gas, he's sure his son will die from one or the other.
Could tension be any higher for the characters and the audience as we all watch a child die? Could conflict be greater than the child being literally in the hands of both "enemies" at the same time, God's hands and the alien's?
As you know, God is not the enemy. The asthma He has permitted in the child saves the boy's life when his airways are too closed for the poisonous gas to be effective in killing him. The father administers the life saving shot to his son which opens his airways and realizes as the boy comes back to him that God has saved him.
The true enemy is defeated, the aliens, and the preacher is reunited with God, who, he realizes, has never stopped loving him.
Conflict and tension, ooh I can feel them just thinking about "Signs." Got to LOVE stories full of tension. However, in real life, not so much.
Have a great week!
Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author