Tension is a key element of drama. Tension is a question. It’s an outcome you want to know. It’s anticipation. Tension comes in different sizes and shapes.
“There’s a bomb on the bus!” is a different kind of tension to “Are you waiting for someone?”
The big, explosive stuff (physical or emotional) takes care of itself. You may need to manage it, but tension will be present. My daughter’s been kidnapped! — very hard to underplay.
This post is about working tension into smaller, more intimate scenes.
Tension requires at least two points of resistance, pulling in different direction.
If you hold a piece of string from both ends and pull, you create tension. If you only hold one end, you can pull as hard as you like, the string won’t go taut.
This means it’s much harder to create tension when you only have one person in a scene. Internal monologue where the character worries and speculates about their problems can suggest tension, but it’s only when you identify who’s holding the other end of the string that you feel the actual twang. And it’s only when you allow them to pull from their end that you get a little drama going.
Let’s say it’s Darlene’s first day at a new school and she’s concerned about how she will be received.
She’s in her bedroom, conflicted about whether she should dress slutty like the cool girls, or straight-laced and hope people like her for who she is, not how much skin she flashes. If she is sure of herself and knows which way to go (doesn’t matter which she chooses), then there’s no tension. If she is unsure and can see pros and cons for both sides, then what she chooses to do becomes a question with no obvious answer. There’s tension there.
But the real tension is in finding out what happens when she gets to school. How will her decision pay off? Internal monologue tends to deal with stuff that’s already happened or will happen in the future. This highlights emotion, but it undercuts a lot of the tension.
It’s like the difference between a bomb disposal expert worrying about the dangers of diffusing bombs, and actually having to cut the wires with the timer on three seconds.
Let’s say Darlene is in her bedroom, checking the FB pages of the popular girls at this school to find out what’s cool to wear, and the two most popular girls are making completely different suggestions. Who should she listen to?
Here, instead of splitting the character into two, I’ve brought in the views of secondary characters, not the actual characters, just their views. This way you have a definite and tangible source of tension the MC can strain against.
The problem here though is that a proxy character, one who is only semi-present, is limited to one approach. They can’t react or respond or up the ante. They are fixed in what they can do, because they aren’t really there. It can work, but it’s very easy to rig the game so the MC gets off easy. Here’s a problem, here’s a solution, problem goes away.
So, Darlene’s at home feeling uncertain, what if we physically bring in secondary characters? The easiest would be to bring in her parents. She tries to convince Dad to drop her off in his BMW convertible rather than Mom in her crappy Volvo.
Now the dynamic requires her to not only think about what might happen at school, but it pushes her to do something about it right now. And whatever she wants, the other characters will also have their own wants, which may not be compatible with hers.
You bring other people into the scene, your MC becomes active, she wants something from them, she has to work to get it, the stakes are clear. Will it work? Will she succeed? How will the other players counter her proposals?
And this is the key to creating tension, that it is in the present. Even though anticipation is a big part of tension, it’s anticipation of what’s going to happen, rather than of what might happen.
Darlene’s tension in the last example isn’t based on what the kids will think of her at school, even though that is the source of her general anxiety, it’s can she get what she wants from her parents. It’s the immediate problem in front of her and how to get round it, and how it’s linked to what’s at stake overall, that holds the attention.
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