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  • Writer's picturePatrick O'Driscoll

Dramatic Tension – don’t let them go (part II)

Keeping audiences hooked relies on meaningful dramatic questions, yet few stories generate tension on the most meaningful level.

Emily Blunt as passive protagonist Kate Macer in SICARIO – written by Taylor Sheridan.

Nothing prevents an audience’s boredom like the need to know what happens at the ending. Provided the protagonist has our empathy or interest, the stakes are significant and the outcomes are genuinely uncertain, a story’s external and internal conflicts have a good chance of pinning us to our seats until we see how things turn out (as examined in part I).

Yet, pull off impressively unpredictable but logical endings to your protagonist’s outer and inner struggles and you’ll still get some uppity readers and viewers saying: “Yeah, I didn’t care. I didn’t care that they caught the killer, discovered the cure, survived the monster, won their soulmate, saved or doomed the story world in such an unexpected way. Nor did I care that they overcame their trauma, conquered their flaw, defended their stance, found their courage, or transformed into better or worse versions of themselves (etc.).”

Dissatisfying endings can indicate a muddled meaning in the story as a whole. Beneath the levels of external and internal conflict – and the dramatic tensions they wield – a well-defined thematic conflict helps to clarify what the story has to say and can generate a more meaningful level of story-long tension.

Thematic Conflict:

Thematic conflict is like a battle of worldviews, usually relating to the story’s core theme, implied by the story’s main conflict. Its basis generally includes:

  • The Main Theme – frequently some human value (e.g. parenthood, loyalty, personal responsibility) or some slice of the human experience (e.g. grief, love, loss of innocence).

  • One Worldview – a philosophy representing the main theme’s positive aspects, personified by the protagonist.

  • Contrary Worldview – a philosophy representing the main theme’s negative aspects, personified by the antagonist.

  • The Stakes – the good and bad implications for the protagonist and the story world should either worldview persevere.

If the protagonist and antagonist’s worldviews are clearly implied by their actions and behaviour, if the stakes are well-defined and it is genuinely uncertain which philosophy will succeed, the story can generate an unspoken but deeply absorbing tension: will the values embodied by the protagonist prevail against the values embodied by the antagonist?

Audiences tend to root harder for a protagonist to positively resolve their main conflict if doing so means that a worthy value or life principle will persevere. They will also be that much more devastated if it doesn’t, as classically occurs in tragedies. This battle of worldviews is conveyed via a story’s main conflict, which is generally external (the protagonist against others) or internal (the protagonist against themselves).

Protagonist vs Others:

Firstly, nonhuman sources of antagonism, such as monsters, maladies and forces of nature, are inclined to be more formidable when representing facets of human nature or aspects of the human experience that we find primally fearful or cruel. For example, Backdraft portrays fire, the villain’s weapon, as a living manifestation of human loathing, an “animal” to be unleashed or constrained. “It’s a living thing. It breathes, it eats and it hates,” says arson sleuth Don Rimgale (Robert De Niro) to the protagonist. “The only way to beat it is to think like it... to love it a little.”

Ripley’s alien isn’t merely a petrifying monster either, but a negative reflection of humanity’s lifecycle. Inverting values of hope and optimism, the alien’s lifecycle is a cold bio-mechanical survival struggle (comprised of eggs, face-huggers, chest-bursters, phallic-headed Xenomorphs and an egg-laying Queen), a reproductive process dependent on the emotionless rape, impregnation and utilisation of others, namely human protagonists. Perhaps the scariest thing about the alien, at least in the series’ earlier narratives, is its reflection of some primal truths about ourselves.

Jeff Bridges in THE BIG LEBOWSKI
“It seems to have life, organic life.” John Hurt in Alien – written by Dan O'Bannon.

For protagonists up against others like themselves, the main conflict can straightforwardly imply a battle of irreconcilable worldviews concerning the story’s core theme or subject. In trying to solve their story problem, the protagonist’s methods and choices under pressure might convey one worldview or a philosophy representing the main theme’s positive aspects.

A contrary worldview or a philosophy representing the main theme’s negative aspects might be conveyed by the antagonist’s actions. During their story-long confrontation, their successes and failures against each other are not purely the suspenseful machinations of dramatic conflict, but meaningful cases for and against the values they represent.

The credible vacillation between the likelihood of either worldview succeeding, provided the good and bad consequences (stakes) are clear, can excite our fear for one outcome and our hope for another.

To read the full article on Dramatic Tension (part II), click here:

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