Thursday, March 24, 2011

Aspiring Advice: Pay Attention To Tension

Before we begin, I'd like to introduce you to a spine-chilling (in a good way) movie trailer that I think goes well with our subject this week.

Kinda brings you back to the early 80's, doesn't it?

When I'm not writing or carrying out basic survival needs, I'm more than likely reading books or watching movies, and I always enjoy a good trailer. This one took me by complete surprise when I saw it last week. From start to finish, it provided enough information for me to genuinely care about this motherless kid, his friends, and his town, without revealing names or what forces are running rampant from the bowels of that derailed freight car. Even more impressive is that it followed the perfect formula for building tension that's memorable.

Tension occurs whenever conflict arises, and it does not always have to be intense or dire. The story is then propelled forward with every instance of conflict. Now, I'm not a fishing expert, but reeling in a fish works in a similar manner--you pull on the fish, release it, reel it in, and pull some more (the next pull being more intense than the last), until the fish (reader) has succumbed to the fisher (author). That makes the task of "hooking" your reader all the more important. Give them a conflict to nibble on, then reel them in.

With that Super 8 trailer for our example, let's break down the layers of tension that make it work so well:

A boy recently lost his mother.
Father does not approve of him making movies.
Boy has a crush on a girl.
Something pounds on freight car hatch.
The US Army comes in without explaining why.
Dogs go missing.
Object smashes through wall, towards a water tower.
Chaos ensues--the kids want to find this thing first.
Random objects float everywhere and smash stuff.

My interest is piqued. I want to know what this thing is and what the town's water tower has to do with it.

Notice how each element slowly builds on each other with a few HUGE defining moments wedged throughout? Now THAT'S good tension building. It also happens to be the formula I use for writing (and the kind of story that I like to tell). What is Super 8's surprise element, then? Obviously, it's the creature--and it had better not be some incarnation of the boy's mother, or so help me . . .

Other effective elements of tension may include character conflicts (discontent, attraction, weaknesses, and personality), what's said in dialogue, time limits, short/active sentences, and adequate pacing, with the next layer (or pull) being more intense than the last. Furthermore, every layer has to serve a purpose.

This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. Good tension building, combined with a fitting climax, are among the ingredients needed for a memorable story that will hold fast in the minds of readers.

How do you build tension? Are there any ingredients that I missed? Are you subtle or intense?

I'm David, and we're making curry tonight!


  1. Awesome trailer and it doesn't surprise me that Mr Spielberg had something to do with it :o)

    Tension isn’t' easy to create, but taking in mind what you said above and looking at this trailer, these things spring to my mind:

    1. Relevance - We have to understand why a certain element will cause tension

    2. Character - How vulnerable are they. This will impact how they react to the tension.

    3. Emotion. When we know the character, already that we can know how they’re going to react when they step into that tension.

    With many books, the readers know about the upcoming tension before the character does. This not only builds suspense, but strengthens the relationship between reader and MC.

    And I'd say I'm a mix between subtle and intensity.

  2. Excellent point about trailers. You have to convey a ton of story in a limited frame. A bit like writing short fiction.

    Loved this one too! Have you seen the new Captain America trailer? Really well done, I thought.


  3. I've been looking forward to this movie for awhile. Like you said, I'm hooked because of the tension build-up in the trailer. What is that thing? Novels are naturally a slower paced medium than movies and so it is even more important to keep the conflict and tension high -- on every page if you believe Donald Maass.

  4. Mmm curry does sound good for dinner. Now that you mention it I remember a great conflict that arose from three little events. Character hated curry, was provoked into eating it for dinner by love interest because he wanted to propose then desperately couldn't ignore the burn long enough to get out the ring.

    Mmm conflict, it's what's for dinner. If you're a character that is.

  5. I love some good tension. Emotional tension is the best because it helps us connect more with the character. Don't get me wrong, I love a good mortal contest, but what really gets me hopped up is watching characters get their emotional feathers ruffled.

    This trailer is super fantastic. And the way I like to think of movie trailers in relation to writing, is that film trailers are like the summary on the back of the book. That summary is an authors chance to build tension and pique interest without giving too much away. And hopefully, win a reader in the process.

  6. These are extremely good thoughts! I've started going by the "three disasters and an ending" type plot.

    I especially like your fishing analogy! I'm in the outlining stages of a new project, I better create good tension before I'm too far into the story.

    Awesome advice, David! Super 8 seems too cool.

  7. I think movie trailers are a great way to learn about storytelling and hooking an audience. Trailers are sometimes the best part about going to the movies. :)

  8. D U, Lindz - relevant points you've all made. I've been such a terrible blogger this week. I'll be sure to catch up on everyone this weekend.

    Wesley - I had not see it, so I looked it up. WOW! I was a little worried that it might be campy, but that looks like no boy scout. Sign me up for Captain America this summer, too!

    Schmidt - that little story was awesome. Good call combining my random comment with the topic at hand. :)

    Smith, Libby, Madeline - thanks, you guys. "Three disasters and an ending." I've used that before, but didn't know it had a tagline. Now I know better. :)

  9. You are so right- tension and conflict is everything. The book would be so boring if there was no tension.

  10. I just wanted to congratulate you on 100 followers. That is so awesome!

  11. Awesome post and movie trailers. Thank you for the advice!

  12. Absolutely awesome post. I was looking forward to Super 8 months ago when I saw the first trailer but this is even better. I'm going to show all of my co-workers. At last, a movie that I'm excited about seeing!

  13. 100 Followers! Congrats King! So, I'm confused a bit considering I have ultimately failed reading through the ancient archives of this blog, is this Unannounced YA Project going to be published? Like, out in stores?

    Sorry for the utter stupidity that has followed after the congratulations.



  14. Abby, Kari, Ellie, Lola - thank you all! There's fun stuff to come on Monday, so stay tuned.

    Michael - I haven't been this excited about an original (not based on anything) movie in a long time. I'm sure it will deliver.

    Jackson - Thank you, sir. I sure hope my unannounced project will be published. I have six chapters to go. Thankfully, an influential friend is reading/backing it up and poking me to get it done. When the time comes to query and shop around, I'll post my pitch.

  15. Awesome. Well, I wish you luck on this unannounced YA novel, I'll be the first to get it when it comes out.

  16. Excellent examples! I LOVE great tension!

  17. Hi David, you asked me to comment about my thoughts about tension. It's likely longer than you want here, so I'll post it at my blog:

  18. Nice post and example video!

    I'm a girl, so naturally I enjoy relationship tension, but I'm a SF/F/adventure-loving gal, so I prefer it if there are man-eating monsters or something fun (AKA deadly) trying to kill the characters while they're dealing with their issues too. :)