Tension tends to drive a story forward. Well, tension and characters. But this is about tension (which relates to characters). Anyway, one source of tension, especially in movies that can be classified as action and adventure, is peril. Everybody loves peril. We see our characters and we ask ourselves “dude, what happens next?”
And that, dear reader, is an excellent question.
See, depending on your personal literary philosophy it’s wondering either who will die or how they’ll get out of it.
Who will die, or, Anyone Can Die, as the beloved website TVTropes.org christens it, is a way of causing tension that’s become somewhat common. The idea is that if you kill off main characters it starts to raise the stakes. The logic is if anyone can die then, well, anyone can die. You, as the audience, eagerly wait to find out who will live, hoping to the writers it’s not your favorite character.
Lost pulled this off magnificently. Deft character development through flashbacks and establishing moments quickly created strong characters who we cared about. But since this was Lost, characters no matter how important, had the chance to die, especially/mostly in the first couple seasons and again towards the end. You began to genuinely fear for your favorite character’s life. There was tension, and the pay off was immense.
Of course, this can go horribly wrong. One look at the travesty that was Heroes after the first season and, well, there it is. At some point they figured that a good way to maintain interest was to threaten the death of main characters. Of course, this would work so much better if these characters hadn’t been twisted beyond recognition. If we don’t care about the character anymore, well, we won’t really give half a crap if they die. The ultimate failing of any work of literature is when the audience doesn’t care. When a character we care about dies amongst those we don’t, we start to grow numb.
The other, less lethal, source of perilous tension, is wondering how our heroes will survive. This is the ideal convention for high adventure. We know Nathan Drake won’t die as he runs from a collapsing ruin. Luke, Han, and Leia will escape from the Death Star and defeat the Empire. In Star Wars it’s not about fretting over who’ll survive, it’s about watching them get through it. The trash compactor won’t close on them, we know that; but how do they get out of it? That’s the hook. The story’s an adventure: we want to see our heroes succeed! In an interview, Timothy Zahn (arguably the best writer the Star Wars Expanded Universe has seen) said: “For me, [entertaining fiction] means watching engaging characters I care about get into and out of dangerous predicaments, working and thinking together in order to defeat the bad guys.” He goes on to defend the idea of Plot Armor, saying that if he wanted the realistic anyone-can-die tension, he’d just turn on the news. This is an adventure.
But, like Anyone Can Die, this isn’t without flaws. Done poorly and there’s no tension since you’re convinced no one will die. You find yourself wishing they’ll just shut up and get on with the plot and stop fretting over a death that won’t happen. C’mon Emmerich, we all know you won’t kill off the littlest cancer patient, move on already! When the back of your mind isn’t saying “you’ve got this, almost there!” or “but what if…?”, then the tension’s gone and interest starts to fade.
There’s a moment in The Avengers when we’re left wondering about a character’s fate. The scene is brief, and everything in you screams survival, and yet, due to proper build up, you’re still wondering “they won’t, but, wait, what if…?” Then we get a magnificent bout of comic relief and it’s all resolved. The tension was there and quickly offset by relief. Of course, this tension wouldn’t have been possible without a significant death earlier (and our heroes’ reaction to it).
This is somewhat typical of the writer/director Joss Whedon. From what I’ve seen by him (Firefly/Serenity, Dr. Horrible [I intend to start watching Buffy over the summer]), it’s something of a trademark of his. Kill characters, but still maintain that feeling of high adventure. In Serenity, characters died, catching you out of left field and raising the stakes for the climax. Because even though you’re almost completely sure those big damn heroes will make it out alive, the doubt is there in the back of your mind. You want to see how they make it out of this impossible scenario, but you also can’t help but to worry about their survival. It’s a blend of both literary philosophies, working together.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter which philosophy is adopted, so long as it’s done well. Or you could always take the third option and take the middle road. Again, the thing is to do it right. Tension’s primary purpose in a work of literature is to get you invested. Tension makes you care about what happens next. So pick your brand of tension and run with it. Kill off your characters or pull them out of certain death. Just make sure we care.