“The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” John le Carre
It’s the fundamental of any story: Two characters in tension with each other, or your main character in tension with an immutable force. There has to be challenge or threat or change otherwise there’s no story. Chances are, if you’ve got any sort of story there will already be some tension, but think about all your favourite movies, books and plays, I’ll bet, in common, they have tension that builds to a fantastic climax.
Ok, so back to basics: What does the term tension suggest? You might think of something being stretched like a cable or a rubber band. You might think of emotional strain or stress. You might think about friction in a relationship or political situation. All are accurate and these examples give us a good starting point for adding tension into our stories.
In Lord of the Rings you can find all of these different types of tension at work. Frodo’s journey is long, it’s arduous and it’s physically demanding. Tolkien furnishes the reader with maps so that you get a sense of the immense distances covered. It’s a long freakin’ way and the author puts water and mountains and mines in between the hero and his goal, not to mention the forces of Mordor. Frodo’s journey is emotionally and mentally challenging. The ring exerts its evil influence over him and wears him down emotionally with every passing day so that he is barely himself and hardly able to resist it by the end. There is external and inter-personal tension: Sauron is seeking the ring and comes close many times; there is friction between Frodo and Boromir; friction between Frodo and Sam; friction between Frodo and Smeagol and between Sam and Smeagol. The result is a gripping story that, admittedly takes a good while to get going, but once it’s rolling, keeps you enthralled for over 1,000 pages and close to half a million words.
Ultimately, how you chose to deploy tension in a story is entirely up to you. Whatever works is a good. But here are some suggestions.
Begin with good strong characters who have opposing goals. Maybe one character wants something that the other one has, one character is in the way of another character’s success, or two characters are competing with each other. The stronger, more dynamic and engaging those characters the better. It’s important that the audience care about them, even the bad guys or villain. If your audience doesn’t care about the characters they won’t care about the characters’ stories.
Next, whatever your initial or main tension, the characters themselves have to be invested. Why does this thing matter to them? What’s at stake? If your hero wants to save the world just because and the villain wants to destroy it just because then I can guarantee your audience will hate your story… Just because. However, if your hero wants to save the world because she has a newborn son and the villain wants to destroy it because not a single person ever showed him kindness or goodness, then you have invested characters and if your characters care so will your audience.
As your story develops it’s important to keep raising the stakes. The journey should become more difficult, the threat more intense and the consequences of failure more dire. Oscar Wilde said “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” As tension builds and the stakes become higher it should be exquisitely torturous. This will keep your audience engaged.
Having said that, don’t punish your audience by only building tension, there should be some ebb and flow. Joss Whedon said “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” The great thing is that tension works really well against lighthearted fun, or romance or other positive action. These ebbs in tension are the windows through which you can weave character development scenes. They allow your audience to take a breath and, if you have the balance right, they will make the next challenge more impactful.
You can also make your audience work for the payoff. Keep them guessing, keep them asking questions. This is especially true for thriller, crime and horror genres. How will the characters get out of this? What is the shadow lurking in the dark? Did the butler do it? If your audience is asking questions they can feel the tension that you’re working so hard to create. They’re also actively engaged in your story, working with you and your characters to try and figure out what’s going on.
Finally, make time short. Set your story in the shortest reasonable timeframe. If your story allows, a deadline is also useful. This ensures that you don’t drag your feet as a writer and that you shoehorn in as much as possible . It also adds a further element of tension because it adds pressure.
These guidelines are by no means exhaustive and not all will work for you, but hopefully some of it is helpful. My absolute best piece of advice with tension is to layer, layer, layer. The more diverse the sources of tension the more likely the story will be engaging , whether it’s a book, short story, or script.
How do you go about building tension? Do you have other advice to offer?