Dramatic tension, a tool for creating strong plots and improving weak plots


Why caring about dramatic tension?

Writing a story without a deep meaning, without highlights, emotionally flat, structurally muddled, with weak and incoherent characters, is very easy: juste take a sheet of paper, write anything, without plan or preparation, and voila, it is ready – good for the trash most of the time.

But writing a story of high quality, highly structured, heavy with meaning, rich in emotion, with strong and consistent characters, a story that keeps the audience interested – like The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Game of Thrones or Thriller, is a difficult creative process, when we write with ambition to see this story disseminated to a wide audience.

Whatever the medium – literature, comics, cinema, television, Internet, entertainment… – the competition is fierce, audiences already know thousands of high quality stories with which it is difficult to compete.

Fortunately, there are several concepts and tools to help us as writers either create a quality story or correct and improve a weak story.

In this article, I’m going to introduce you to the concept of dramatic tension, and show you some ways to use it for creative purposes.

But first, a reminder of the fundamentals of narrative writing.

The story, the plot and the characters

A story is a mixture of plots.

A plot is a series of situations and actions linked to a principal character (the Hero of this plot) endowed with a goal (a quest, a mission, a problem to solve, a desire to satisfy, etc.).

The goal must be substantial – at least from the point of view of the character – otherwise it can not be any identification from the audience to the character, thus no involvement of the audience in the story.

The goal must also be difficult to achieve – relatively to the strengths and weaknesses of this character – otherwise there is no plot (the character would reach the goal immediately, which would resolve the plot immediately) – but not impossible either – because that would kill the plot.

In a complex plot, the Hero is not the only one concerned with the goal.

The goal is contradicted or prevented by at least one other character, the Antagonist – who either wants to reach the goal instead of the Hero in a logic of rivalry (for example, two parents fight for custody of their child), or wants to prevent the Hero from reaching the goal (eg the serial killer wants to kill people and the police officer wants to stop him).

In this logic of antagonism, other characters join forces with the two principal characters and end up forming antagonistic teams.

With this theoretical framework in place, let’s see how the concept of dramatic tension can help us write better stories.

The dramatic tension

The dramatic tension is a kind of abstract energy felt by the public when they see significant changes in a plot.

For example, let’s lay the groundwork for a criminal / police plot:

  • We know that a serial killer is roaming the city and killing children
  • We see that they mandate an inspector to find the criminal and stop the murders

Okay, so that gives us these elements:

  • Hero, the police officer
  • Antagonist, the serial killer
  • Purpose of Heroes: stop the serial killer
  • Purpose of the Antagonist: continue killing without getting arrested

Now, let’s say we see these scenes next: what do they change in the dramatic tension ?

  • Scene where the police officer has lunch with a colleague and discusses his relationship problems with his wife
    • No change in the dramatic tension. This discussion has no impact on the goal of the hero or on the plot.
  • Scene where the police officer eats lunch with a colleague, says he is passionate about profiling, makes assumptions – which the public knows to be correct – about the identity of the criminal, and lays out a credible plan to trap him
    • The dramatic tension rises as the hero looks set to achieve its goal
  • Scene showing an empty park
    • No change in the dramatic tension
  • Scene showing a park, full of children playing
    • The dramatic tension rises, as an element of the goal of the antagonist is concerned; but it doesn’t rise much until we show that the criminal is lurking around and that a new crime is imminent.
  • Scene which shows a park, full of children playing, with the criminal sitting on a bench, observing them, then talking to one of them
    • The dramatic tension rises more than in the previous situation, as the Antagonist seems closer to his goal
  • Scene that shows the same as the previous scene, with the police officer watching the criminal from a building
    • The tension rises even more than in the previous scene since this time, because the 2 principal characters seem close to reaching their goal
  • Continuation of the previous scene: the criminal isolates a child and leaves with him, then the police officer sets off in pursuit; when the criminal notices it, he flees and after a minute of chase, he disappears
    • The tension rises sharply during the scene, peaks during the chase, and falls when the Antagonist finds himself out of reach of the police officer.

From this example, let’s draw some valid conclusions:

  • The dramatic tension rises when the fundamentals of a plot change, especially when the goal is closer
  • The dramatic tension varies in intensity (a little, a lot, lot) and direction (it goes up and it goes down)

So, even if it remains relatively subjective, we can MEASURE the dramatic tension: we can measure it on a scale of 0 to 10, and assign it a + or – sign. We can therefore say that a scene causes the tension to change by +3 or -1.

Now that we know precisely what dramatic tension is, we can better see what we can do with it:

To create a plot

We lay the foundations of a plot:

  • We define the principal characters (Hero and Antagonist) and their goals
  • We sketch the path between the initial situation and the final answer to the question “has the goal been reached?”
  • And we attribute dramatic tension variations to these stages:
    • Step 1: from 0 to +5
    • Stage 2: from +5 to +2
    • Stage 3: from +2 to +7
    • etc

We can therefore, from the start, build a dramatic tension profile, which fluctuates, which goes crescendo towards a maximum during its final resolution – even before knowing the CONTENT of these dramatic tension variations.

Then, knowing what levels and what changes of tension we must get in a scene, we just have to develop a content that corresponds to it.

This method, if you apply it with rigor, leads you to get a coherent and effective plot.

To correct a plot

  • Let us admit that we have written the summary of a plot without a rigorous method, and that we realize that this plot is not powerful enough, or that it stagnates
    • Here we can rebuild the profile of the dramatic tension, and see precisely at which moments the tension stagnates for lack of major events, or at which moments it varies only in one direction monotonously, and therefore which moments we must rewrite to improve the tension

How to raise the dramatic tension?

  • Either we bring the Hero, or the Antagonist, closer to their goal
  • Either we strengthen or weaken one or the other team
    • Thus, if the Hero thought he was facing a single hostile character, and he faces 10, the tension rises because the Antagonist has suddenly become much stronger than expected.
    • Or, if towards resolving a plot, the allies of the Antagonist get eliminated one after the other by the Hero and his allies, the tension rises as the Hero approaches victory.

The final bouquet

We have seen how to use the dramatic tension on the scale of a single plot.

But of course, most stories are complex, made up of several plots, cut into parts and mixed up.

So we also must manage the tension (just like the prognosis) on the scale of the general mix of the plots.

Imagine for example a story made of 4 plots. These plots would culminate in a general convergence in one long last scene. Throughout the story, we would change the prognoses and the tension, + / – / + / – / + / -…

When the tension goes down in one plot, it then rises in another, making the audience experience a roller coaster. Dully, the average tension would rise in a slow crescendo. In the end, the convergence scene would see the pace speed up, and prognosis and tension would change quickly as in a series of explosions: bang! bang! bang! BAAANG!

I have no idea what this fantasy story is about at all, but I know that it is possible to conceive it from the start, only in terms of tension and prognosis. If you want to know what it is talking about, write it down yourself!

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