Is something bad going to happen? Will the hero make that jump? Will the villain foreclose on the orphanage? That tight feeling you get thinking about those questions is called tension, and it’s a critical element of storytelling. So critical, we’re devoting an entire episode to it! Listen as we discuss how to foster this important yet elusive feeling in your story. We talk about how to set believable stakes, how to keep the tension from lagging, and when too much tension is actually a problem.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Mouse Bowden. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[opening music]
Chris: This is the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: Now, this podcast is gonna make or break Mythcreants.
Wes: Oh my gosh.
Chris: We got to put on our best game, and if we don’t, everybody’s gonna hate us, and all our Patreons are gonna quit—
Wes: [injecting] Oh no…oh my gosh, ugh.
Chris: And it’s gonna be the worst. But now we all woke up with hangovers today, and so it’s just really hard to talk, and somehow we gotta—we gotta pull this off.
Oren: I don’t even drink! How did I get a hangover? I don’t understand!
Wes: I probably drink enough for you, Oren.
Oren: That’s fair enough.
Wes: I’m full of tension…I’m full of tension, I can’t handle this.[all laugh]
Chris: A talk about fostering tension. And this is usually one of the first things a storyteller has to learn. And when I mean storyteller, I don’t mean necessarily a writer specifically; there’s a lot of things in word craft, in writing craft, that often writers will learn that first before they start learning storytelling. But when you start going into storytelling and how to construct an actual story in your content, usually tension is where it starts.
So first, some definitions: What is tension, and why do we need it?
Wes: And why do I carry it in my back.
Chris: [laughs] Oh no! Okay, so I think the best definition of tension—it’s a sense of uncertainty over an outcome that matters.
Wes: I love that definition, Chris, because I think one of the issues I have with people talking about tension is it’s—that word so frequent connotes with something that has to be more dire than necessary. That definition is really neutral—it’s like, this is what it is. It can be about everything from stopping a murderer to paying a mortgage to hunting down some really good candy.
Chris: Sometimes we’ve talked about attachment, too. Because the outcome that matters— It’s like, well, what matters? Well, that depends on attachment, which is a whole ‘nother…you know, I have this whole ANTS acronym for the things, the effects, that make a story great, that make a story really engaging. And so attachment is the sense of caring that the audience has. And so something has to matter to them, but it basically depends on how good you are at getting them to care about various things.
The idea of a loss of a button, right—normally, it’s like, “Oh you lost a button, that doesn’t feel like it matters.” But you can make a button matter by tying it to other stakes. Maybe this in an heirloom button given to the character by their dead grandmother. Or maybe they’re on their way to a job interview and they have to look snazzy. There’s ways to make things matter, often by tying them into larger stakes.
But also, the more that you care about the character, the more that lower stakes matter to that person and then create tension. So one of the things about really high stakes is that you don’t need as much attachment to make high stakes work. Even if the world is going to end, it’s like okay, well, this here was a terrible person, but maybe I care that the world is going to end. Whereas you have to care more, you have to have more attachment, for lower stakes to be suitably motivating.
But anyway, that’s going into the whole uncertainty of our outcome that matters. Suspense is a pretty good synonym. But we tend to think of suspense in the context of thrillers.
Oren: Right. It’s also worth pointing out that stories—tension is generally good, but it is possible to have stories that work without a lot of tension. You were talking about having a story where the character is trying to find the best piece of candy. Now unless you attach something else to that candy, like “I need this candy to make my dad love me” or whatever—
Wes: Oh my god. [laughs]
Oren: —then that’s not going to be very high tension. But it is possible, especially in a shorter story, to fill in with other qualities where the tension is low, and then you create a fun, light story. But that’s…for today, we are assuming that generally speaking, you’re going to want a higher level of tension than that, for most stories most of the time.
Chris: Yeah. So I would say that tension is one of basically two things that make stories entertaining. The other one is novelty. And novelty fades fast, so it’s a lot more effective to have a low-tension story that relies on novelty for entertainment if it’s short.
But generally, tension is the primary way that we entertain audiences in stories. That will vary from story to story, but in general, in storytelling—and it’s the reason why stories have a specific structure. It’s the reason for building a story as a unit of content that works a certain way. It’s so that we have that tension, but then we will later resolve in a way that is satisfying.
But as Oren said, not everybody likes horror, right? Sometimes tension is…it’s stressful, it can get too high. And people have different tastes.
So, any other basics on why tension, why do?
Oren: I don’t know if this is a basic exactly, but there are kind of two sliders on tension that are, I think, very helpful for people to think about. And this has to do with the type of stakes involved. You basically have more tension with higher stakes and more tension with more believable stakes. And the way that you make tension higher is by putting more at stake. The way you make your stakes higher is by increasing the scope of what will happen if things don’t go the right way. And this is why a story about one person being threatened has lower stakes than a story about a town being threatened, which has lower stakes than a story about a city, state, et cetera.
Now, you don’t necessarily want to just jump immediately to “the entire universe is at stake”—I mean, that would be a hilarious way to tell stories—but first of all, you don’t want to do that because a lot of stories, that wouldn’t make sense for. If you’re doing up-close and personal drama, having it suddenly reveal that, “Ah! If you can’t make up with your ex, then the world explodes!” That’s just going to seem silly more than anything else.
And at the same time, starting with really high stakes leaves you nowhere to go, because there is a ceiling to how effective high stakes can be, and how big that ceiling is depends on the type of story involved. So you don’t automatically jump to the highest stakes possible, but for various scenes, you will adjust how important the stakes are based on how much tension you want that scene to have.
Chris: I mean, tension can go up and down a little bit during the story, but for the most part, you need room to grow towards the climax. So if you’ve got a real short story that really is just dealing with one problem and solving it and it has only one little arc, then you don’t have to worry about that. But for a novel, you need to leave room for the stakes and the tension to escalate higher.
But I think it’s worth breaking down what stakes are a little bit, just because you can have good stakes and bad stakes, right? Generally, the most important thing is, of course, the bad thing that might happen if the protagonist fails, just because the human brain pays a lot more attention to possible failure than it does to success. You can also have good stakes—here’s the reward they will get if they succeed—and I do think that can matter a little bit, but it just doesn’t have near as much motivating factor as the negative stakes.
And then I think the other thing that Oren was talking about—the likelihood.
Oren: Right. Believability is the other half of this.
Chris: Right. Will this actually happen. We can have believability, do we believe that this could happen in the story. But there is also how stacked against them, against the protagonist, is this situation. And this is the problem that stories get into, where they try to make is so that to raise tension—especially in movies, they will try to make it seem impossible for the protagonist to win in order to keep raising tension. But then they somehow need to pull off a believable win.
Oren: Turns out that’s hard.
Wes: [laughs] You can always use music, though, to kind of help make sure everybody’s like, “This moment isn’t really significant, but this music makes me think so.” And then cut to commercial.
Oren: I have also seen a number of TV shows and movies that, when they need the hero to win, they just change the music that’s playing, and now the hero is winning. And nothing materially has changed, but you can sometimes trick the audience to go along with it long enough to go to the ending credits. I mean, I wouldn’t recommend doing that—that’s likely to fail—but people do it. People make bad decisions in real life. It happens.
Chris: The other thing that I want to talk about which can loop into likelihood but might also a little bit be its own thing is the urgency of the situation. The urgency of the problem does change a number of factors in the story, and it does change the likelihood. If a problem is more urgent, it is going to feel a lot more likely that the bad outcome will happen.
But I also think that urgency might be kind of uniquely motivating. People pay attention to deadlines especially. And also urgency is one of those things where there are some story situations in which you actually don’t want as much urgency because it tends to make lighter scenes just impossible.
So for instance, if you have a really urgent situation but you want to have a light, novelty-based scene where the characters sit down and have a nice meal, if you make the urgency too high, it’s just like, “Why are they sitting down? There’s people dying!” So depending, on lighter stories, a lot of times they need less urgency for that to work.
But on the other hand, if the characters just sit around doing nothing for six weeks and we have time passing, that implies that the situation isn’t urgent, and that can really drop tension. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts where people just are around, things take too long. The protagonist is not trying actively hard enough to solve the problem. We kind of assume the problem’s not a big deal, it’s not very urgent, and that really just makes the story less entertaining. It starts to get real boring real fast.
Wes: I like how Last Airbender paces with the tension and how they bring in urgency at key moments in certain episodes. There’s the comet thing, but I think of an earlier episode where they use a pretty novel way to create urgency and tension. It’s when they go to King Bumi the first time, and they put those—I forget the type of rock that they put on—
Chris: Those growing crystals.
Wes: The growing crystals, right. And so suddenly Aang is having to do all this stuff while realizing that his friends are in trouble. I thought that was a cool way to add something for that episode—a real important urgent factor that raised the tension of him just instead doing what otherwise were otherwise a couple random challenges.
Chris: Mhm, yeah. There has to be some kind of time limit, because in this episode, Aang is given a bunch of obstacles that he has to overcome. And we could have some tension where the idea that these obstacles are dangerous and that if he fails, he might get hurt or even killed.
But one of the things that really does kill tension very quickly is that if you have any sense that the protagonist can just try and try again. Because the likelihood of them failing at that point just dives. If they can make an attempt at success and fail without any significant consequences, then there’s just nothing stopping them from getting it right eventually. And that’s one of the big things about urgency, is that if there’s a long enough deadline, we just assume, even if it seems almost impossible, the protagonist will figure it out. They have lots of time.
Oren: Yeah. And if I can bring it back just a little bit to believability, there are a few things you can do to make it seem more likely that the stakes will go the wrong way. One of the ways, of course, is that if your story has a history of doing that. This is where it can come in handy to have killed characters before, because now it’s tense, because we know you’ve done that and we think you might do it again.
Chris: My post on how to fake that you’re going to kill a character is really just all about imitating stories where the protagonist or an important character actually dies. There are certain patterns. If you want somebody to believe that you will kill off a protagonist when you’re not going to do it, you have to make your story look like a story where that actually happens. You have to have extra characters that are disposable; the story has to be able to continue without the protagonist; it has to be the kind of dark, gloomy story where a protagonist would die. All of those, that meta information—people pay attention to that.
Wes: I love that because it’s a way—you’re fostering tension, but you’re using your readers, or your audience, they’ve been conditioned to see things a certain way. And you’re just like, “Oh, right, why wouldn’t I access that.” A good example of that is a good short story by Shirley Jackson that’s called The Man in the Woods, which, I think The New Yorker published it, so you should be able to read it for free. But it draws on some folklorey, fairytale tropes, and for the most part, the things that kinda happen in there is, there’s a boy in the woods who goes to a house and has dinner. But tension is just rampant through this whole story because it gives you this whole vibe from the fairy tales you absorbed as a kid and the threat of things in the woods, and all that kind of stuff, without it being overtly menacing. The tension comes from—How’d you describe it?—the metaness of it.
Chris: Right, the meta knowledge, I guess I would say.
Oren: You can also just apply this model to things beyond character death. If your characters are having a fight with the villain and we’re worried the villain will win whatever the thing is they’re trying to do, if they’ve won in the past, it will just seem more likely that they might win now. If they were able to accomplish the thing that the hero didn’t want them to accomplish before—and presumably this has to be something that allowed the story to continue—but now there’s higher tension because we know this villain is actually capable of winning.
And that’s something that a lot of repeating villains have trouble with, because it’s so easy to just be like, “Oh! And they try to fight the main character! And they lose, cause the main character can’t die!” And that sort of thing.
Chris: Once the villain loses to the protagonist, it’s really hard to keep tension up. They just don’t feel threatening any more. Especially if it happens more than once, but even once, I think, has a significant negative impact on the tension of the story.
Oren: There’s an interesting comparison to be made between the villains for season three and season five of Buffy, which are the mayor and Glory. Glory’s okay—she’s not bad—but what they try to do with Glory is basically, they show that she can kick Buffy’s ass at the beginning and then basically never put her in a position where she actually has to do that. So instead, she’s sending out her minions, and Buffy’s able to stop those. And that’s not a terrible way to do it, because that reserves the actual threat of Glory herself in the final fight to still be scary, because we’ve never actually defeated Glory in combat before. But it isn’t quite as effective as the mayor, who actually does succeed at what he’s trying to do sometimes. Whereas Glory basically still always fails, even though she doesn’t fail in a personal-defeat way.
Chris: Right. But she doesn’t really accomplish her goals either.
Oren: Glory’s not terrible—it’s not like a lot of the other Buffy villains who just lose to Buffy over and over again. And it’s like, “Oh, I guess we’re going to fight Angelus again, or Spike, or whoever, or the Master.” The Master basically does the same thing, except it’s way sillier.
Wes: I like the notion of the protagonist and the antagonist, and who’s winning when. And I like how that can get played with adaptable antagonists. And there’s that, I think it’s first season Next Generation. It had that really great title, “Arsenal of Freedom.” And they can defeat that artificial intelligence robot, that war machine. But then when they realize that it’s adapting to their strategies, and they’re suddenly realizing they’re running out of strategies, and number of people and number of phasers and stuff. And it’s like, okay, that’s good: “We won, we won—oh no.” And the tension’s raised because we can’t keep doing the same thing. And that’s a good way, I think, to work out multiple conflicts where there’s learning happening and adaptability.
Chris: It’s like the reverse, where now the villain can just try and try and try again until they succeed. And in this case, what would otherwise seem like a loss in the beginning isn’t really a loss for the villain. The villain hasn’t really lost anything. Like these machines, they can just keep regenerating and keep trying. They’ve gotten a learning experience. They’re actually losing nothing.
Oren: It’s also worth noting that in that episode, when the villain gets stronger—or really, the machine, I don’t know if you’d call it a villain—but the opposing force, it gets stronger in a visually noticeable way. It’s not just like, “And then it comes back and then we have to fight it harder.” We can see that the first time, we shot it with one phaser, and that killed it. The second time, we did that and it didn’t work, so we had to use two phasers.
And that’s a thing we can actually see, as opposed to if this was some kind of martial arts robot or whatever. It would be much harder to demonstrate that it was just, “Ah! It was stronger this time,” they say—with a fight that looks more or less the same as the way that it did last time.
Chris: Another thing that tension requires is a basic knowledge about the situation. I did a critique of the beginning of The Name of the Wind recently…
Wes: Oh, boy. [chuckles]
Chris: And Rothfuss is just so coy about his character and what his character is trying to do and what’s going on in the situation that it’s not really possible for things to have tension because we have no idea what the consequences of failure are. Right? You make a big deal about these giant spiders and how it’s not enough for you to just kill them, you have to use a special ritual to bury them. But what happens if you don’t? What happens if you fail to bury these creatures properly?
Oren: Then you haven’t respected their cultural burial habits!
Chris and Wes: [laughter]
Oren: Gosh! Rude!
Chris: So this is one of the reasons why, for the best tension, you want your audience to know what the protagonist’s plan is. Not be all tricksy about what the protagonist is intending. You want them to know, and you want them to know how that plan could go wrong. What’s tricky about that plan. And then, if that fails, or if it fails in different ways, or something goes wrong here or there, what could happen. Because they have to know about those consequences to get tension by thinking they might happen.
And if you name all the different ways that your plan could go wrong, each one could supply tension while you’re watching the protagonist try to carry out that plan. Whereas if your protagonist is just going along, and you have no idea what they intend, it’s really hard to empathize with the protagonist—which ties right into the whole caring about the protagonist, which also can inhibit tension.
But also, you just don’t have enough knowledge, necessarily. If you see them, and they seem to be battling for their life, okay, we can kind of assume we have life or death stakes here. But really, that knowledge very much helps with keeping the story entertaining and keeping tension intact.
Oren: It’s also important to know that you can’t just increase numbers and assume that that will have increased tension. Sometimes it does. If it’s a house full of people instead of one person, that could be higher tension. But after a certain point, it kind of feels like it stops mattering. And where that is is going to be different for different people. But if you go from blowing up the planet to blowing up the universe, unless you’ve established that there are aliens out there we should care about, it’s like, eh, sort of the same thing. There’s a point at which it stops having a meaningful difference.
Chris: Right. And what do we care about that’s not on this planet, right? If everything we care about in this story’s going to be destroyed, then we don’t care about the stakes going up.
Oren: Right. I’ve also seen, occasionally, fiction will try to—or spec fic will try to be like, “Oh, well, he didn’t just kill him, he unmade him.”
Wes: [sarcastically] Whoaaaa.
Chris: What is the difference.
Oren: That doesn’t…yeah, how is that any different than just being dead. Unless you show me a tangible way in which that’s different, it’s the same thing.
Chris: Right. Again, why do we care about that difference.
Oren: He’s unmade, Chris. That’s a special kind of damage.
Wes: That’s right. You can’t resurrect that.[all laugh]
Chris: Well, that would be a difference, right? If we had resurrection in the setting…
Wes: Then that would matter.
Chris: That would matter.
Oren: I think they did that in maybe…in Wheel of Time, they had this whole balefire thing where it was like, “It unmakes you! It’s extra bad!” And it was like, eh, it feels like the same thing to me.
Chris: I also think it’s worth talking about that when you have a really big story, like a novel, there’s definitely some techniques to try to maintain the tension. Because we have a big problem in the beginning, right? Where maybe like Sauron is going to attack. And a resolution at the end. But then we have a very long period from when we have that initial big hook towards the end, in which tension needs to be high enough in the story to pull people.
And so generally one of the rules of thumb that you can use—and it’s not always perfect, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb—is that you alternate action scenes and reaction scenes. Because if you have too many scenes where, again, characters are just doing non-urgent things: they’re sitting around talking, they’re going to parties, they’re having nice meals—our urgency drops. But if you have a tense scene where they’re dealing with higher stakes, they’re having a big fight, a big battle, then it’s safer to, afterwards, fit in a quieter scene where they’re not risking their lives right now. They’re dealing with their interpersonal issues.
And then usually after one scene, you need to go back to something that’s a little bit higher in the action. A little bit higher stakes, a little bit more conflict again. And this does vary, depending on what stage you are in the story. But trying to pay attention to where tension rises and falls over the course of the story does take a little practice, I think. I think that the more that you pay attention to tension in your story, the more you’ll get a feel for it.
But another thing that’s important is to just know how to raise tension for your big throughline or your big problem when you need to, because sometimes you have to. Like if at any point in time, your hero gets a victory that will help them defeat the big bad or help them solve the big throughline, your tension will go down. And that includes if your hero just got their magic sword, and other things that are really typical to happen during a story. The hero got a new ally. Anything that makes it seem more likely the hero will win and less likely the bad outcome will happen can really drop the tension, and so you need ways to bring it back up again.
Wes: Is this similar to candying and spinaching your characters? It’s like the good thing that they get is kind of candy, but then…tension and spinach just don’t seem the same thing to me.
Chris: So, spinach and candy are a little more complicated. Definitely spinach can create tension, because it usually means that the character is undergoing some unpleasant experiences and some bad things and has some problems. They’re really more about the karma of the character and whether the character is glorified or not and how the character appears before the audience. But typically, for instance, if you have a main character and you usually build sympathy when you introduce that character by giving the character spinach. So they try to do something, and everybody laughs at them.
Oh, let’s say we’ve got Willow, at the beginning of the movie Willow. And he wants to be a magician, and he does his magic trick at the fair, and he gets to his big ending act…and it goes wrong. Everybody sees that instead of the pig disappearing, it’s been hidden somewhere, cause the pig runs out and squeals away. Everybody laughs at him.
That’s spinach for him, but it’s also a problem. It also creates tension for a personal problem he has where he wants something and he’s not getting it. He doesn’t have the respect of the town, and that drives us to want to see that problem solved. I do think that if you have a lighter story, that is a way to have problems that matter and have some level of tension but aren’t quite as stressful as if you have an ongoing problem that needs to be solved, instead of having a big, terrible thing hanging over a character’s head.
Oren: And on that note, if you don’t mind, I do think it’s important to understand that tension is good, and in most stories you want it, and you want to raise it, but there—not everything that you do to raise tension is necessarily justified.
For example, I see the whole concept of killing characters to raise the tension. It’s like, yeah, that will raise the tension, but that could also cost you one of the other ANTS, one of the other four critical elements. Because if you kill a lot of characters, then there’s nothing left for the audience to be attached to. And yeah, tension’s high, but now tension’s high and attachment is low, so now the story is just kind of unpleasant.
And this isn’t just with characters—this can also happen with factions in the story or a species or a city or something. If there were something there that you were really depending on that and the audience really cared about it, and it’s destroyed, they’ll certainly care, and it’ll be tense, but they also might just leave. Because maybe they don’t want to read the story without that thing any more.
Chris: Or going back to what I was saying about this game where, especially with movies and TV shows, you try to raise tension and raise tension until there’s no realistic way to solve the problem, they’re sacrificing satisfaction. That comes later, right, because we should get satisfaction when we see the situation resolved, and the tension is dispersed. And if you basically make things really, really tense, but the consequence of that is that there’s no way for the protagonist to actually, realistically solve the problem, and then you do something that’s just not believable, there’s no satisfaction later.
I’ve certainly seen a lot of TV show writers in particular do tension in ways that just don’t make sense for the story or…just because they care more about entertainment in that moment than they do about the overall story health, I find in a lot of cases. And some shows are worse at this than others. I remember when I was watching the first season of Magicians, they just really didn’t seem to care if what they did in one scene made any sense in the next scene. So they would do all sorts of weird reveals and weird tension things, and just other stuff, that they just were only thinking about that moment.
Oren: Alright, well, speaking of only thinking about that moment, this is now the moment that we have run out of time. How’s that for a smooth segue.
Wes: Nice job. [laughs]
Oren: Before we go, I just want to thank a few of our patrons. First is Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. The second is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo; she lives at therambogeeks.com.
If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. And we will talk to you next week.[closing music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?