Creating Tension & Conflict in Fiction: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Tension in storytelling is critical—what’s at risk, on the line, worth fighting, killing or dying for. But defining and describing tension in a way that will grab the reader can be a challenge. This is where Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes in handy.

A Very Quick Overview

For those who never took, don’t remember or slept through freshman psych, Maslow was a psychologist who proposed that humans have four levels of needs, moving from the purely physical to the purely psychological:

  1. Basic physical needs: food, water, air
  2. Situational needs: safety, shelter
  3. Societal needs: Love, belonging and acceptance
  4. Self needs: Self esteem, self respect, sense of identity

(For those who do remember freshman psych—or read the Wikipedia entry—this isn’t exactly correct, but accurate enough for this post.)

Advertisers understand these needs and appeal to at least one in every commercial. The juicy burger in the fast food ad? Level one. The alarm company ad with the big, bad man crashing through your front door? Level two. Diamond jewelry to tell her you love her? Level three. “You owe it to yourself to…”? Yup, level four.

Using the Hierarchy in Storytelling

Using the hierarchy, you can develop risks and threats according to levels. Let’s say an up-and-coming officer takes command of a colony on an alien planet and you want to put him at risk. How about:

  • Someone is trying to kill him (Level One)
  • The shield generator is in danger of failing, which could let in hostile aliens (Level Two)
  • His subordinates are blaming him for things not going well inside the colony (Level Three)
  • The shield is failing because of a mistake he made years ago that he never owned up to (Level Four)

So, multiple threats means many levels of tension.

But you can take this further. Let’s say the main character discovers a one-person escape pod to take him to an orbiting space station. Now, the main character can escape, solving the Level One & Two problems, but not Levels Three & Four. Or, stay behind and risk the Level One & Two threats, but have a chance to address Levels Three & Four.

Let’s take this even further: the main character can appease the hostile aliens by going out and sacrificing himself. This would solve the Level Two, Three & Four threats, but trade one Level One threat for another.

Describing the Threat in Appropriate Detail

Deciding the level of threat also helps determine its description. A level one threat—starving or suffocating—shouldn’t be described with intellectual and abstract narrative. Rather, sensory description—quick, evocative, raw.

Conversely, a threat to someone’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem shouldn’t illicit physical reactions, but rather introspection and logical examinations of one’s identity.

Dealing with Threats in Order

In his hierarchy, Maslow believed one had to address lower level needs before higher level ones. If you’re starving, feeling loved doesn’t matter. If you’re lost in the wild, who cares if you respect yourself?

This theory affects your writing. With our example, the commanding officer isn’t going to worry about his subordinates’ opinions as the killer hunts him through the bowels of the station. Once he’s eluded his stalker and ensured the shield is still holding, then he might worry about the furtive glances of this staff. And it’s not until he’s assured them he can deal with the situation that he can address his own self-doubts over what he failed to deal with years ago.

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