Character v Character: Tension, Done Well

How can you quickly build tension between two characters? And how can you imbue that tension with a feeling of immediacy?

Short story writers are always in need of shortcuts: ways of getting the characters and scenes moving in the right direction with fewer words. This is easier said than done. It feels impossible to trim away words when staring at a piece of the story as large and important as the central conflict. It’s better to start small.

Tension often forms the beginnings of conflict but it can be established much more quickly. How quickly? In the opening to If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?, Theodore Sturgeon effectively creates tension in just two sentences:

The Archive Master had been around long enough to expect courtesy, respect, and submission, to get these things, and to like them. Charli Bux slammed into the room, banged a folio down on the desk, sat down uninvited, leaned forward and roared redly, “Goddamit—”

You can feel the beginnings of conflict beginning to build. These two characters can’t be in a room together for too long before something dramatic happens. Although this first interchange contains only one word of dialogue, it nonetheless propels the characters forward, laying a rich mulch from which future dialogue can grow naturally. Soon after, Sturgeon uses the characters’ different mannerisms to answer the question what makes Charli this way?

“I think you’d better begin somewhere.” Then [the Archive Master] added, not raising his voice, but with immense authority, “And quietly.”
Charli Bux gave him a boom of laughter. “I never yet spent upwards of three minutes with anybody that they didn’t shush me. Welcome to the Shush Charli Club, membership half the universe, potential membership, everybody else. And I’m sorry. I was born and brought up on Biluly where there’s nothing but trade wind and split-rock ravines and surf, and the only way to whisper is to shout.”

These two snippets create a pattern that the rest of the dialogue must match. As you read on, you’ll notice that the reserved Archive Master speaks circuitously, only hinting at what he really wants to say. His sections of dialogue are drawn out by vague and non-commital wording. As soon as the reader is tired of his drawl, Charli jumps in with a single sentence that slices through all those gray words and gets right to the point.

Seeing the closed eyes, the long white fingers tender on the white temples, Bux said, “I said I was sorry I yelled like that.”
“In every city,” said the Archive Master patiently, “on every settled human planet in all the known universe, there is a free public clinic where stress reactions of any sort may be diagnosed, treated or prescribed for, speedily, effectively, and with dignity. I trust you will not regard it as an intrusion on your privacy if I make the admittedly non-professional observation (you see, I do not pretend to be a therapist) that there are times when a citizen is not himself aware that he is under stress, even though it may be clearly, perhaps painfully obvious to others. It would not be a discourtesy, would it, or an unkindness, for some understanding stranger to suggest to such a citizen that—”
“What you’re saying, all wrapped up in words, is I ought to go have my head candled.”
“By no means. I am not qualified. I did, however, think that a visit to a clinic—there’s one just a step away from here—might make—ah—communications between us more possible. I would be glad to arrange another appointment for you, when you’re feeling better. That is to say, when you are... ah...” He finished with a bleak smile and reached toward the calling stud.
Moving almost like a Drive-ship, Bux seemed to cease to exist on the visitor’s chair and reappeared instantaneously at the side of the desk, a long thick arm extended and a meaty hand blocking the way to the stud. “Hear me out first,” he said, softly. Really softly. It was a much more astonishing thing than if the Archive Master had trumpeted like an elephant. “Hear me out. Please.”
The old man withdrew his hand, but folded it with the other and set the neat stack of fingers on the edge of the desk. It looked like stubbornness.

This story opening exemplifies a tried-and-true technique for building tension: put two diametrically opposed characters in a room and see what happens. This method makes an implicit promise to the reader—there is more than a surface-level difference between these characters. The reader expects that this tension is the harbinger of a larger conflict to come. Does the rest of If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister deliver on this promise? Find out for yourself by picking up a copy of the excellent 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions.