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A few thoughts on "tension."

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Svrtnsse, Apr 22, 2019.

  1. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I was thinking about the concept of tension. What it is, how its created, and what to do with it.

    One thing that occurred to me is that tension grows when the reader can figure out what the outcome of a situation is, but wishes it would be something else.

    To achieve this, you'll need to make sure your reader understands the "rules" of your story, so that they can, on their own, predict what's going to happen.
    You'll also make sure that the reader is emotionally invested in the outcome of the story being one other than what seems to be the most likely one.

    What's a good way to achieve this?
    What's another way of creating tension?

    Really, the above is fairly basic and I'm sure some of you will be able to poke holes in the reasoning. I'm still thinking it'd be cool to have a talk about tension again. I think it's been a while since last.
     
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  2. MythicMirror

    MythicMirror Dreamer

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    Well! Hitchcock explained a good trick in one of his interviews. In his example, there were a group of guys, who talked about baseball, in a bar. What they didn't know was that under their table is a bomb, which counts 10, 9, 8, ... The guys don't know it. But the viewer do and he/she thinks OMG! Get out, dude. Now the question is: Do you choose the Kaboom-way and let it just explode or do you choose the "Oh. I think there is a bomb beneath our table. LET'S GET OUT OF HERE AS FAST AS WE COULD!"-Way. What's creating more tension for you?
     
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  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Aye, that's pretty much what I'm saying above.

    The readers can figure out what the outcome will be (bomb explodes and everyone dies), but they hope something else will happen that saves the day.
     
  4. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

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    I think you're definitely getting at something here, and I've seen this work, very powerfully, but I don't think this is exactly what's causing it? If a reader legitimately believes that the story is headed in a direction they don't like, I don't think it would make them want to keep reading, I think it would make them want to throw the book at a wall.
    I think the key element here is really creating that doubt and uncertainty. You want them to still be furiously hoping things will go right, not resigned that things are going to suck.
    I do think that erring on the "the bad thing is going to happen" side is better though--the more convincing you can make it without completely stealing the reader's hopes, the more tension you'll have.

    I'm not even sure that's entirely right, though. I've been completely enthralled by stories where I 100% knew bad stuff was going to happen (because spoilers) but felt like that made the tension more powerful.
    I think that the difference is between an outcome the reader just doesn't want, (For some reason, the example of this that keeps popping into my head is a love triangle not going the reader's way) and an outcome that they know will be sad and emotionally painful and say they don't want, but will be emotionally engaging.

    IDK. I may have gotten to far into the specifics of your one example there, and I could very well be wrong. But that's my understanding of it.

    One explanation of tension that I really, really, love, and that maybe applies here, is that it's the promise of future conflict. It's been a good, practical way of looking at it while constructing a story, since I can look at any point in the story and ask myself what sorts of problems are looming in the distance and what my reader currently has to look forward too.

    Ack. Got to go now. Maybe more on that later.
    (Thanks for starting this discussion, I hope it lives for a while. I love talking about tension, it's one of the most interesting things in writing, in my opinion.)
     
  5. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Sage

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    Subtle foreshadowing can signal to a reader something is about to happen and careful word choices can help increase tension (besides setting mood). For me, I find characters facing other characters with opposing agendas light a powderkeg of tension. It's a different kind of tension, one I find fascinating.

    I find dialogue a great tool to increase tension and the techniques in Dazzling Dialogue are invaluable to me.
     
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  6. Caltan

    Caltan Acolyte

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    These are great points. I find it's difficult to balance foreshadowing, being too heavy handed can be off putting, however, you're still wanting to create the desired tension.

    I thinks creating conflict is another way to create tension. The conflict could be a physical fight, but more often it could be an inner dilemma, a situation that makes your character uncomfortable physically or mentally.
     
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  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    A hefty portion of the tension I feel comes from wanting to see how the characters will react to information and/or changing situations.

    But it's not just a one-to-one thing, event-reaction. It's more like one of those flow charts with yes/no arrows. To get to one of the very ends of the chart, a lot will depend on the intersections earlier. Does the character choose the right or the left path, the yes or no; and, what else happens as a result of that choice; and, what other yes/no intersections will occur later because of this? So I guess for me it's a matter of how changing contexts will force characters to react in ways that will affect future contexts. I may have a desired outcome much later in the story, and this one intersection, here, will come to bear on that.

    Quick example. A loved character has the option to be lenient with a prisoner or execute the prisoner. The reader knows this prisoner is loved by another main character—let's say it's a family member of that second character—and, what's more, wants to see both of these main characters fall in love sometime later in the story. There have been hints this might happen. Choosing leniency or execution, either one, will affect that later outcome. I might dread the the effects of one choice—execution—or suddenly become hopeful if the other choice is made, and it doesn't matter so much which choice is made. I still am tense wondering about the ultimate effect when the choice that was made is revealed later, i.e. wondering how the other character will react and how this context will come to bear on their potential relationship.*

    *Edit: I suppose with that positive outcome, having been lenient with that prisoner, there will be more tension if this secret is held from the other character or not revealed for some reason. Just tell him already! Or, I may hope someone else will reveal this thing, even if accidentally. Then again, even the case of having executed the prisoner will lead to more tension if it is held in secret also, because we are waiting for the shoe to drop. Either way, I'll still be wondering how the revelation will affect things, how the characters will react to having all cards on the table.
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2019
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  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Yeah, I've stopped watching some television shows I'd been marathoning simply for this reason. I was caught by the story and the characters—and then suddenly, I wasn't.

    This almost literally happened when I read the Red Wedding. I did actually throw the book. Robb Stark was my favorite character at the time. But I kept reading (after calming down; I may have taken a break) because I just couldn't believe it, heh. I believed it, but I thought it was some trick. I wanted to see the aftereffects of the Red Wedding.

    A lot of stories with predetermined outcomes can still have tension. The prime examples might be action-adventures (a la MCU movies or James Bond) or mystery stories (Sherlock Holmes is going to catch the bad guy; we already know this.)

    I think this is due to that flow chart I already mentioned in a previous comment. For me personally...I'm waiting to see the flow, how we get from here to there, and wondering how each step of the way will affect the MCs. I know the X-men will win, James Bond will win, Sherlock will solve the mystery. But I don't know how.
     
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  9. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Yes.
    I probably was a bit blunt in how I expressed myself.

    I think maybe we can make a distinction between our expectations of the story as a whole, and our expectations of what's happening within the story.

    Let's say we expect the story to end Happily Ever After, because it's that kind of story, and we're used to them and how they end. Because of this, we know (expect) that the hero will save the day, and everything will be alright in the end. That's our expectations of the story as a whole.

    As long as that still holds true, the story can still present the hero with a challenge that seems impossible for them to overcome. We trust that something will come up that will let the hero defeat the villain, but we're not quite sure it will - or we don't know quite how.

    But what if the expectation of the story changes during the reading? It might develop to the point where it's no longer the story we expected it to be. Depending on the story, we might keep reading to see what actually happens, or we might give up on it, feeling cheated and disappointed.

    -=-=-

    One of the reasons I began thinking about this was because I revisited the idea of kishotenketsu - a four-act story structure that isn't necessarily built on conflict to create tension.

    In this structure, the first two acts serve to introduce the reader to the character and then develop the character further. In the third act some kind of complication occurs. This complication may not necessarily involve the main character from the two previous acts. What matters is the meaning of the events of the third act in the context of the first and second act.
    There's a contrast there, and while it might not be outright stated in the story, it's still something the reader can understand or figure out on their own. This too can result in tension.
    The fourth act is reconciliation, where the events of the third act are combined with those of the first and second.

    That's where I got the idea of the reader knowing what will happen, but hoping for something else.
     
  10. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Sage

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    That 4 act structure is what Larry Brooks in Story Engineering alludes to. Great book.
     
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  11. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I mentioned this to Svrt in the chat yesterday. But I think tension is about dealing with three different outcomes.

    The first is the "happy outcome" that the reader ultimately expects, where the heroes overcome the problem and continue on with the story.

    The second is the "bad outcome" that you the writer are trying really, really hard to trick the reader into thinking will actually happen.

    The third is the "twist outcome" which ultimately happens, the one you are trying to hide from the reader as much as possible.

    On some level managing tension is about mastering the tease and expectations between these outcomes. There's a level of deception and secret keeping here, as you want to keep all three outcomes in play until the end.
     
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  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    And let’s not forget microtension.

    My favorite analogy is from a screenwriting course: plates in the air. If you throw a plate in the air, it’s hard to look away until you know whetehr it’s caught or it crashes, or a twist like it bounces... or in Game of Thrones, the plate chops the head off your favorite character, heh heh. On a micro level, cause and effect... you have a cause at the beginning of the sentence or paragraph, and the reader goes on to find the effect.

    When does it fail? When the plates are tossed into the air and it just becomes a jugglers rhythm: if you watch the same thing too long, it’s easy to walk away. The juggler must keep upping the ante until they get to flaming chainsaws and somebody must die! Err, something like that.

    Change. Every chapter must have a change in the character’s situation, this also is part of tension.
     
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  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    A great example is A Prayer for Owen Meany. We know from the start that something tragic is going to happen. Maybe the MC can prevent it, but the further we go, the more sure the outcome looks. He still manage to surprise me, though. Another great one is Appointment in Samarra. (the title comes from one of the best little stories told; often used, in various forms)

    There's another tension, though, isn't there? I mean tension between characters. Not all tension in a scene exists between the reader and the plot.
     
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  14. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Yeah, tension should be everywhere. We had a great conversation on tension a couple years back, LOL. Anything we say here is probably a rehash.

    And I’ll throw out one of my favorite tv show examples: Columbo. We know who the murderer is right off the bat, we know Columbo is going to catch them, heck, we know Columbo knows, but the tension and subtext of cat and mouse between the killer and detective along with just how is he going to prove, carries all the tension you need.
     
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  15. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    That's usually the case of it, isn't it? ;)

    Even so, we change and grow with time, and sometimes we find new ways to beat a dead horse.
     
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  16. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    True. That was a long conversation with lots of good thinking, LOL.

     
  17. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    He ain't dead; he's restin'.
     
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  18. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    We readers know the horse is going to be raised by the Night King in a few moments, will turn vicious, and we anticipate the reactions of those who have been beating it.
     
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  19. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Reminded me of a post I started on microtension once: Micro-Tension Strategies

    Going back to read it again, I see a lot of the same points brought up in this thread already. Expectations, suspended judgment, anticipation: the flow and interplay of cause and effect.

    I used Derek Attridge's phrasal scansion, from his book Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction, to look at sentence-level types of microtension. He divided the working of our phrases into four types of phrase; or, two pairs:

    • Anticipation (ANT) - Arrival (ARR)
    • Statement (STA) - Extension (EXT)
    Rehashing now...I'll use examples from the two paragraphs above that bullet list.

    Going back to read it again, [ANT] I see a lot of the same points brought up in this thread already. [ARR]

    I used Derek Attridge's phrasal scansion, from his book
    Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction, to look at sentence-level types of microtension. [STA] He divided the working of our phrases into four types of phrase; [EXT] or, two pairs: [EXT]

    The second of these, for STA-EXT, takes larger chunks here, and as an example may not seem as tight as the first. Basically, I stated that I used his book, then I extended that concept by describing what part of the book I used, and then I further extended the concept of four types of phrase by two pairs.

    The bullet list afterward is also a further extension of the initial statement, heh, since it extends the four types and two pairs by describing those. OTOH, one could also say that "two pairs" followed by a colon acts as a phrase of anticipation and the bullet list acts as an arrival, heh. So we might begin to see how the general features of these two pairs of phrasing can scale up or down.

    They are describing more than the simple phrases themselves. They are also describing our interaction with those phrases, how we experience them, even how they may affect us when we encounter them. Crucially, this isn't merely about syntax. It's also about semantics. It's about meaning and how we humans encounter, discern, and interact with meaning. More than syntax or grammar, content is key.

    I think these two general concepts can scale up rather well. If we react to the delivery of meaning in this way on the micro level, what's to say we don't do it on a macro level also? Heh, it's rather fractal.

    I do think that breaking examples down on the micro level is easier for exploring the general concepts of ANT-ARR and STA-EXT, especially because our experience of meaning becomes more complex at the macro level. I've been wondering how to express these concepts using examples of larger structures within a story—without becoming too opaque, dense, or confusing, heh.

    For STA-EXT:

    I imagine introducing the fact that our young adult MC, who's been living on the streets as an orphan, is actually the only surviving heir to a king who has just died. This is like a statement of fact, the delivery of a whole truth, for the reader. The reader lives with that idea for a few chapters (or only one scene, heh), and then we extend the idea: He is the surviving heir, but due to some magical conundrum, if he ever takes the throne, not only he but the entire kingdom will be instantly destroyed; this is why he was put on the streets, left to fend for himself all these years, as far from the throne as possible. To protect him and the kingdom.

    But lets extend it further. At or around the same time we reveal he's the heir—let's say all this happens in the first two-thirds of Act One—we also show him being lonely, struggling to survive, unhappy, and in great danger from the local crime lord whose only fear is the local authority. This, combined with the revelation that our MC is the heir to the throne, is something the reader can live with and wants. This reality, his being heir to the throne, will save our MC. After a scene or several chapters of living with these facts, the dastardly author reveals that, no, our MC is much, much safer if he stays away from the throne—but of course, still in danger from the crime lord and perhaps doomed to be lonely and unhappy forever.

    Generally, tension is created through STA-EXT because we are changing the context of known facts. The reader is given one truth, and then we modify that truth or add context that changes the meaning. It is something unexpected; it twists our understanding. An example from a mystery/suspense novel would be that suspect who surely is the killer (all clues and other revelations suggest this, for reader and detective) who is later one of the victims of the killer; those were authentic clues, but now they are recontextualized and must be pointing elsewhere.

    For ANT-ARR:

    Let's say we don't reveal our MC's status as a hidden heir to the throne, nor do we reveal the reasons behind his current status. Instead, we hint at these things. These clues can be chance encounters and dialogue between the MC and others, or they can simply be suggested by the conversations and interactions between others who are close to the throne. A loved/sympathetic character near the throne is vehement about keeping the MC away for some reason, while a hated antagonist (let's say, a member of an evil cult) is weaseling his way into the boy's confidence (on the street level.) The reader knows there's something going on, but doesn't know what it is. Events and interactions suggest that all this info will be revealed; and, the reader wants it revealed, for herself and for the MC. The reader is in a state of anticipation. The arrival is when these things suddenly come to light.

    Alternatively, let's say the MC discovers one of these two things. He's the heir to the throne. This is the solution to his problems, and a new friend (the cult member?) seems to have the connections or power to make his dreams come true. The reader knows why the boy must not become king, but our MC doesn't know any of that. Our MC is a very good guy, very sympathetic, and has a group of friends and other loved ones living in the city, his adopted "family." The first act can be his struggle to become king. He strives for this, has great hope, and the reader knows he shouldn't. Moreover, the reader knows there is someone else near the throne, another good guy perhaps, who hasn't met the boy but will surely (??) reveal this second bit of info if they ever come into contact and if things are about to go to hell. The reader may be in a state of anticipation, longing for that conversation; and, given the nature of our MC, very curious about how the MC will react when he hears the truth. [ARR.]

    Now, obviously, these two scenarios can both be in the same story, both STA-EXT and ANT-ARR. The reader finds out the truth of the MC's past and the consequences if the MC takes the throne, via a STA-EXT development. But as soon as the reader knows this, ANT starts taking over, heh, because that new recontextualization is leading, creates a sense of anticipation when combined with knowledge of the MC: what will happen when he finds out?

    ^And this is why looking at the macro level is a bit more complicated than looking at the sentence level. :sneaky:


    Alternatively:

    You throw a plate in the air, and it bounces. [STA] Whew! But then it bounces again and chops the head off your favorite character. [EXT] It keeps bouncing and chopping the heads off other favorite characters. [EXT]. Then we pan to the magic user we've never met before standing in the doorway, waving her hands, obviously causing all of this. [EXT.]
     
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2019
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  20. Futhark

    Futhark Sage

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    I think a lot of tension comes from the threat of conflict. It doesn’t really matter what the conflict is, as long as there are stakes involved that the reader understands/cares about. For example, I watched a really bad movie today where the threat came from aliens trying to recover their artefact, and the ‘good guy’ soldiers were supposed to secure it. There were a few plot devices to try and heighten the tension, such as; was the artefact a bomb?; were the aliens going to kill everyone in their way? (which is what I was hoping for); was there a way to stop them? These were used during breaks in blasting at each other to build tension (or try to).

    Ok, so I used a bad movie as an example because I can point to clear examples. With good stories I find it a little more difficult to pinpoint how they build tension because it appears to be woven in with the characters and the conflict they are experiencing. Another movie I saw recently that was very good even had tension in the romantic subplot of one of the main characters. The situation was that he didn’t want a relationship, so every time they ran into each other there was an interpersonal conflict. The lady, however, was persistent, so there was the always the threat to his status quo that he wasn’t going to be single for much longer, even though he was old and grumpy (it was a comedy with Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin).

    So, the audience/reader have to be able to recognise the conflict. They must have some information or clues about the stakes involved, and this can be achieved with the overt situation (such as staying alive) or statement of the goal (must kick this goal to make it to finals). It can also be achieved with foreshadowing and/or foreboding.
     
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