As moviegoers, we tend to focus on a film’s production value and characters -- the same way many Marvel fans raved about their favorite superheroes in its most recent sequel of the Avengers. We’re moved by the tear-jerking scenes in Star Wars: A New Hope. Remember when Obi Wan Kenobi died? Or maybe you remember the action-packed, fight scene in the Karate Kid movies that pushed us to take Martial Arts lessons when we were kids.
But, more than the characters, the fight scenes, and special effects, what really makes a great story is tension. Would there even be a hero without the antagonist? Would there be an adventure if there was no villain to slay? Challenges for the protagonist is the key to keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. It makes a novel a page-turner and a movie a blockbuster. Obstacles make a good story, outstanding.
Matt Reeves, Hollywood screenwriter and director and the man behind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has perfected building tensions in his movies. The trilogy has become a blockbuster, simply because Reeves kept moviegoers wondering what would happen next. Critic David Blaustein of ABC News described the film as “a tension-filled movie that’s as smart as it is entertaining.”
For storytellers like us, here’s a short checklist to guide you in perfecting the art of creating tension in your stories:
Create dynamic characters that thread the grey areas
The first step in creating tension is to get your audience invested in the characters. We usually find ourselves attached to heroes with flaws and problems. The protagonist in the film, Caesar, was a former test subject whose goal is to build an independent and self-sustaining family of apes. But, Koba, his nemesis who also experienced abuse from humans, wants to destroy the species who made him suffer. Emphasizing morally gray areas highlights the characters actions, motives and beliefs. Audiences tend to relate even with characters like Koba. We empathize with him because of his horrible backstory. Some of the best struggles draw from characters threading grey areas.
Develop a central conflict
When creating stories, identify a central conflict. Is it a quest for something greater than the main character? Is it an underdog story? Is it a story of rebirth of a hero defeated and being reborn like a phoenix, rising from the ashes? The struggle needs to have grave consequences for the character. It’s not just about them winning. It’s about going through the journey and witnessing the victory of the heroes in the story.
‘Are humans friends or are they enemies?’ The central conflict in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for instance, doesn’t root from a choice between good or evil, but from the perspectives of both characters – Caesar, who was raised by a kind and caring human, and Koba, who grew up heavily tortured by humans. Conflicts caused by the main characters choices, makes audiences become more invested. In the movie, audiences see how much Koba and Caesar can lose and gain when humans die.
Let the protagonist fail
In the film, Caesar’s biggest mistake was trusting Koba. Unfortunately, Koba took charge of the apes and started war with the humans – the exact outcome Caesar was avoiding. Audiences were left with how’s and why’s. How will Caesar stop the war? Why did he even trust Koba? Answers to these questions kept the audiences glued to their seats.
Failure is part of life, but the common pitfalls of some stories is the fear of losing -- at least on the part of the protagonist. Great stories allow their champions to fail. If we knew they would win from the start, why do we even bother to watch the whole movie? Knowing that even our favorite characters can still be defeated allows us to empathize with them. We’re able to relate our own experiences with their downfall. The more anxious the viewer feel, the more tension there is.
Build internal conflict
Creating an internal conflict for the characters gives them depth and dimension. His personal dilemmas appeal to our emotions. Is Koba right that Caesar is choosing humans over apes? Will Caesar’s attachment to his human owners overshadow the need to protect his family? Will trusting the humans finally restore peace between the two groups? We asked these questions with Caesar as he examined his motives for his actions throughout the movie.
It’s crucial to allow these conflicts to manifest in the character’s action. When Caesar beat Koba, we saw how he stopped himself and say, “Ape no kill ape”, the mantra and the very foundation of the family he built. To create similar tension in stories, make your characters face moral dilemmas. Force them to choose between two important things. Test their principles. Make them question who they are.
Draw tension from different sources
Not all tension has to come from the main conflict. Smaller struggles can help develop both the plot and the characters. There could be rivalry between friends, allies, or other encounters that can contribute to the complexity of the story. Koba, for instance, was not the only villain. What kept a tiny part of our hearts believe that he may be right, is that some of the humans in the movie were as terrible as he remembered. Audiences were struggling internally, wondering if the humans who were at peace with the apes would attack Caesar and his family too.
Allow small encounters between characters before the big confrontation
Let the opposing characters interact before they duke it out in the climax. In the film, Caesar and Koba had several arguments about what direction they should take in dealing with the humans. These seemingly small disagreements turned into physical fights, and ultimately, into absolute betrayal and battle. Tension existed between the two characters in small increments early on in the movie, cluing in the audience on a bigger tension brewing in the story.
“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.”
– Stephen King