Clever concepts, genre staples and rare characters can entice audiences, but without story-long dramatic tension your script will struggle to keep them engaged.
Screenwriting has one rule: thou shalt not bore thy audience. Even Neanderthal storytellers knew that boring a cave full of people meant death (figuratively, we think). Writers strive for audience involvement with every tool in the box, but particularly by getting them to care about the story’s outcome.
A reader or viewer’s "I-want-to-see-how-this-turns-out" sensation is a story’s dramatic tension at work. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a suspenseful actioner, a riveting thriller or a slow-burning drama, the more levels on which your script tries to wield story-long tension, the more chance it has of pinning its audience to their seats until the ending. Broadly-speaking, there are three levels: External, Internal and Thematic.
1) External Conflict:
Whenever we abandon a script or a film it’s usually because the outcome is too predictable, its themes are muddled or the protagonist hasn’t earned our involvement. Protagonists needn’t be “likeable” for readers and viewers to care, but they must earn at least some modicum of our empathy or curiosity. Even the most reprehensible characters can have an admirable personality trait or an interesting quality. If we don’t care about the protagonist and what they are going through, the story will have a hard time making us wonder about the outcome. That’s really all tension is: an unsettling question mark hanging over the outcome of the protagonist’s struggle. A story’s main tension is generated by its main dramatic conflict, usually an external conflict. The basis for which tends to include:
The Protagonist –– the person whose story it is.
Their Problem – the personal-chaos-inducing predicament foisted on them.
Their Goal – the perceived solution to that predicament.
Their Opposition – the forces preventing that solution.
Their Motivating Reasons – that which will be gained or lost should the protagonist solve or fail to solve their story problem.
The careful arrangement of an external conflict’s primary elements, such as these, can pose a dramatic question for readers and viewers, eliciting an emotional anticipation regarding the uncertainty of the story’s ending: will the protagonist solve their predicament or not? The kinds of dramatic questions that external conflict generally presents break down into: emotional and intellectual.
Emotional dramatic questions stimulate an emotional tension. Audience empathy, sympathy or identification with the protagonist is fairly essential for this kind of tension to work effectively. It also relies on something meaningful being at stake (for the protagonist or for others) and on the story’s ability to genuinely convince the audience that good and bad outcomes are imminent – depending on the protagonist’s and antagonist’s actions. Emotional dramatic questions are usually very simple and begin with ‘Will’. Will Clarice capture Buffalo Bill in time to save Catherine Martin? Will young Miguel escape the land of the dead? Will the stammering King find his voice? Will Ripley survive the alien? They can also facilitate tension in stories with more abstract character objectives: Will lighthouse keepers Thomas Howard and Thomas Wake maintain their sanity?
Intellectual dramatic questions are more aimed at stimulating our rationale and logic. Beginning with ‘How, Who, Why, What,’ they’re effective in thrillers, mysteries and detective stories driven by the deciphering of puzzles. They also generate tension in historical dramas, bio-pics and true stories where we already know whether or not the protagonist solves their story problem. Yet, we mightn’t know the personal struggles or events behind that known outcome. How did Solomon Northup survive 12 years in slavery? Why was Mark Zuckerberg sued by his best friend? Who were the African-American women behind John Glenn’s orbital flight? What happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Also, who happened to Jimmy Hoffa?
If the protagonist is able to earn enough of our empathy or interest, intellectual tension can also span entire series: why/how does Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman?
Mary Queen of Scots is about the 16th century rivalry between Mary Stuart of Scotland and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England, which culminated with Mary’s beheading in 1587. The film’s main trailer begins and ends with the question: why did it come to this?
As long as we relate to an aspect of the protagonist’s nature or intellect and provided something pretty meaningful is at stake, emotional dramatic questions captivate us deepest when the story vacillates between the convincing likelihoods of the protagonist’s success and their failure. On the other hand, intellectual dramatic questions are most absorbing when the story wavers between whether or not it will share the mystery’s most relevant aspects by the story’s ending. Give up the goods too soon and our attention goes elsewhere. Having said that, even if a story’s main tension is sustained and intensified throughout the story, it may not be enough to keep everyone sufficiently engaged.
To read the full article on Dramatic Tension (part I), click here:
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