Tag Archives: tension

Instant Tension: Just Add Guns!

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.

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Imply, Don’t Show

Every aspiring writer is at one point treated to the ancient adage of “show, don’t tell”. The idea is that rather than telling us that Sam is an impressive diplomat, it works better if the writer describes her being a great diplomat. It gets boring (and annoying) if a writer keeps on saying that a character is a certain way but never actually shows them acting according to said characterization.

That’s well and good for characterization, but what about for plot points and events? Or scares and other monstrosities?

A lot of the time tension and interest is raised more by what you don’t see than what you actually do. The viewer’s imagination is far less limited than a special effects budget or the creativity of the art department. See, your imagination is fantastic at creating a tailor-made horror for you. You just need the implication.

The original Predator from 1987 is an excellent example of how tension can be heightened by simply not seeing the ‘monster’. For most of the film we watch Dutch’s squad get killed by some unknown creature. Tension keeps rising as we wonder just who or what this is. We finally see the Predator himself as the climax approaches, but by then his reputation as a masterful killer (with a tendency to rip people’s skulls and spines from their body) has already been well established. Since we’ve been shown what he’s capable of his appearance is now the embodiment of our anxiety.

Had we seen the Predator raging into view at the start, yes, we’d still be intimidated, but we wouldn’t have the amazingly high tension that makes the movie so good. It’s worth mentioning that in the 2010 sequel Predators, the titular Predators are barely glimpsed at first, but before long we see them in full. We already know what a Predator looks like, no sense in putting us through the same beats again.

Cloverfield did it too, to a different effect. In most monster-attacks-city films we watch the spectacle from the point of view of people in power (mayors, generals, ace fighter pilots, etc) or the littlest cancer patient. In this film it’s just a small group of survivors trying desperately to keep that prize status. We don’t get any good shots of the monster (until the very end) but we do see the destruction and the characters’ responses.

It’s an intense film, thanks not just to the shaky cam point of view, but also due to the fact that we’re never sure just what it is they’re running from (and that anyone can die). Though the monster itself isn’t a particularly terrible abomination, we’ve already had a good ride by the time we see it..

This extends to other mediums, too. Video games, for example. Now, I’m not a player of survival horror games, so I’m ignoring that genre. In Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Nathan Drake finds himself on a mysterious island long since deserted by its Spanish settlers. He encounters a trap like other ancient ones only not made from wood but the wreckage of his recently-crashed plane. An antagonist says that his men have been disappearing in the jungle. We see strange footprints in the jungle and we encounter bodies strewn up on traps.

Drake finds himself exploring underground catacombs and at last the monsters are revealed: cursed zombies. Or something. But now the game, like Predator, switches gears from the tension of the unknown to shooting your way to safety. Uncharted used implication when it needed that sort of tension and switched back to normal combat tension after the former dissipated.

So we can use implication to invoke a form of terror or tension, but it can also be used to keep interest alive. Lost made use of reaction shots and frequently hid just what it was the characters saw and forced us to rely on their descriptions or reaction. It accentuated the mystery of the show. We got our share of apprehension as we waited for the camera to show just what it is Jack saw. Sometimes we’d get to see just what it was, sometimes not. But the point was that there was something out there that could change something; something that caused that character to react the way they did.

Like everything in Lost, it wasn’t so important what the item/reveal was, just the way the character reacted. Nonetheless, the implication served its purpose and keeps you glued to the serial.

Implication is another tool in a storyteller’s toolbox. Really not much more to say than that. Tensions tend to run higher when we don’t know what it is we’re afraid of/interested in, but have enough hints and clues to know that we should be.

The trick is, of course, to be careful that we don’t wind up with a massive let down. ‘cause that, well, that pretty much sucks.

Also: buy my book In Transit! Support aspiring authors who sometimes use implication (but not in that book)!

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Perilous Tension

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.

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