As all good screenwriters know, dramatic tension is key to a great story.
Without it, an audience is bored. But here’s a secret: it is physically impossible to create a story with no tension. Every story has some kind of built-in tension. “A man loses an argument with a friend” — will the friendship suffer?; “A homeless woman drops her free beer” — what will she do now?; “A boy gets lost in a supermarket” — will he find his way out? At the heart of every story, there is something that has shifted the balance; something problematic that has to be fixed.
Tension comes from the attempts to fix this problem.
So, why do so many movies drag? Why do so many screenplays fail to maintain an interest? Stories that should be interesting and tense are just boring. Often, it’s because of one very simple mistake: there’s no limit to the story. A limit is a condition set in the first act that alerts the audience as to WHEN the story will end. It’s a countdown of either options or time. I don’t know what the science is, but the limit keeps people on the edge of their seat. I’ll soon explain what happens if you don’t have a limit, but for now, let’s jump to some examples:
1. DWINDLING OPTIONS
Imagine that I’ve written a screenplay in which a detective has to inspect a string of murders in a small village. Our detective arrives to discover that there are only ten people left in the village.
Where is our tension? Any one of those ten people (our options here) could be the killer. The built-in tension comes from the detective trying to figure out who the killer is, as the potential suspects are killed. This is the beauty of the limit; as it narrows down, the audience should get more and more interested in what happens next. When the number of available options crumbles to its lowest number, the story is at crisis point.
Crisis Point is a moment in which the audience experiences the highest amount of tension. The options have narrowed, and our protagonist has to either stick with his initial idea or take a huge leap of faith. Think of Hitchcock movies or even something like Die Hard! In a story, when do you experience the most tension? Right before the big reveal. That’s the work of a great story. The audience is lured in, they eagerly climb down the rabbit hole, and like an unbelievable magic trick, they have to know how it ends.
Your limit should excite your audience to find out the ending, no matter the genre.
It’s worth noting that the number doesn’t have to be so specific, as long as the options are made clear. For example, the amount of uninfected people in a town that’s been quarantined; only a certain number of chances to catch the cybercriminal, etc. As long as the audience understands that the story ends when those three wishes are up, or the spy is caught, your limit is working.
Additional examples: Seven deadly sins in Se7en; Five witnesses to kill in Collateral; The falling petals in Beauty and the Beast.
2. NARROWING DISTANCE
This is a subset of limited options. Let’s create another copyright-free, absolutely original, never before seen story to elaborate. “A young girl is whisked away to a fantasy land and has to follow a coloured road to get home.” Completely off the top of my head. It sounds like a great story, though. Someone should probably write that. Anyway, the story revolves around her journey from A to B, so her options are represented by the places she passes through.
Where is our tension?
Sure, the difficult obstacles she has to overcome provide the conflict, but the tension comes from the distance to her goal. Is she going to get there, or not? We know the end is near because we can see how close she is to the destination. But every time she gets stopped on her journey, it concerns the audience deeply. It makes them wonder: is this person going to undermine everything? Is this journey doomed? As a writer, it’s your job to make an audience question the outcome at every turn. Audiences love to be surprised.
When do we feel the most tension? Just before our protagonist gets wherever she’s going. She’s come all this way, and now she may not even get there! In this story, perhaps there’s some lunatic running things behind a curtain that makes the whole journey seem completely futile! “Oh, no! She’s never going to get home!” the audience cries. But then she does. Somehow. I don’t know how it ends, because it’s a completely original idea.
Additional examples: Marlin’s search for Nemo in Finding Nemo; Distance to the pageant in Little Miss Sunshine; The race to the big W in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
3. TICKING CLOCK
The alternative to limited options? Limited time. Time is an excellent motivator for everything from waking up in the morning, to eating your lunch while the boss is in a meeting, and it’s exactly the same in terms of narrative. Imagine a story where a divorced couple give themselves 10 days to work through their problems. You’ll notice that they don’t have the problem of limited options; they can try anything to resolve the problems between them. But the ticking clock provides a different kind of tension.
A limit adds urgency to your protagonist’s goal, like a deadline — couple this with high stakes and you have the makings of a story nobody can ignore.
Where is our tension? Well, if the script is good, we will be reminded often of the passing of time. Assuming it’s the real world, we know that the couple can’t alter time. Every time the countdown is brought up, the audience’s tension is increased. If the couple have five days left, and they’re still bickering, we know they’re in trouble! The limit motivates the audience to remain engaged, because they know there will be a resolution by day ten. There has to be.
When do we feel the most tension? When we’ve finally reached the final day. We’ve seen them fighting and bickering for a week and a half. The audience is on the edge of their seats to see if the couple will continue their relationship or to separate permanently.
Additional examples: Noon in High Noon; Seven days in The Ring; Friday at Midnight in Midnight Run.
DRAMATIC TENSION THROUGH LIMITS
Two questions always arise with this topic: “What happens if I have both?” and “What happens if I have neither?” The answer to both questions is simple: your story will drag. If you have both limited options and limited time, one limit will cancel out the other and your story will continue regardless; if you have no limit, there is no end in sight for your story. This is why some movies feel like they have six or seven endings, and others feel like they go on for years. They may have established a goal, but they didn’t set a clear limit. So, when an audience expects a story to end and it continues, they feel like the story is outstaying it’s welcome.
It’s incredibly important to supplement your built-in tension with a limit, or you risk losing your audience. The audience is your passenger: they don’t want to know where they’re going or how you’re going to take them there, they just want to know when you’ll reach the destination.
Limit your story, not your audience.