Say three guys are discussing the proper pronunciation of the word milk. Then the argument heats up and they start yelling. Things are starting to get a little intense Now one of them pulls a gun on the others. Things just got real, man! Then the other guys pull out their guns! Just like that the tension in the story jumps through the roof and the argument about elocution is forgotten in favor of will these friends kill themselves over it.
Most stories (and hilarious Julian Smith videos) need tension to move them along or they’ll wind up boring. So the story needs a crisis, a threat or something. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add a gun. Instantly someone’s life is on the line! Drama! Suspense! Tension!
This can be done right, of course. Look at Lost, especially in the earlier seasons when there were only a handful of guns. We got great drama from the fight for possession to their occasional use and threatening. The conservation of guns allows the actual use of them to provide great tension. Guns mean that life was seriously at stake and there were consequences. But the show didn’t always need guns. “The Constant”, arguably the best episode, is a terrific, tense episode that doesn’t have anyone firing a gun.
Some stories require guns. Video games like Uncharted or Mass Effect are about guys with guns saving the day. Chuck is about spies doing spyish work with guns. Take away James Bond’s gun and we get, well, not James Bond. You can’t rave against guns in these stories since they’re essential to the plot.
But let’s take out guns. Can a story keep that level of tension without a firearm?
Ender’s Game is a magnificent book, that should go without saying. One of the things that makes it so good is the state of constant excitement and tension. And besides the practice ones used in the Battle Room, there aren’t any guns. Rather, the tension comes from our wondering how Ender’s going to carry on.
The larger narrative external to the central one in Ender’s Game is a war between mankind and the alien buggers. But the one we follow is Ender’s personal struggle as he’s thrust into a new environment where he must use his wits to get ahead. We’re invested in the kid’s struggle, we want to see how far he can be pushed and how he’ll continue to think his way out. There are the occasional life-or-death moments, but for the most part the tension is intellectual.
Sometimes the thing at stake isn’t the character’s life but humanity. Silver Linings Playbook uses this sort of tension. Pat, Tiffany, and the other characters’ lives are never at the risk of ending, but rather we’re wondering if their lives will continue. As we watch Pat over the course of the movie we’re cheering for him, hoping that he’ll be able to get past his inner demons and come out on top. In a story like this we don’t need the external threat of death to spur things along. Sometimes the internal conflict is more than enough.
Other times a blend makes things work. Iron Man 2 has a few external conflicts in it (Monaco and the climax), but the central plot centers around Tony Stark’s struggle with his humanity and the consequences of doing the superhero schtick. The tension is a lot like that in Silver Linings Playbook: Will Tony be able to fix himself? It’s a blend that works.
Look, stories need tension, that’s just a fact of life. The question is always how to go about with that tension. Internal, external, guns waving around everywhere; the key thing, of course, is to do it well.