Tension is what keeps your audience turning the page and watching the screen. It’s the worry that something might go wrong: the hero might die, fail to stop the galaxy-conquering warlord, or live the rest of their life alone and unloved. Tension is so important that we classify it as one of the four critical elements that make stories popular. When tension is neglected, a story is boring, so surely no storyteller would do that, right? Plot twist: it’s actually a very common problem! Let’s take a look.
Spoiler Notice: Project Hail Mary, A Master of Djinn, and The Green Knight
Andy Weir’s latest novel starts out with plenty of tension. First, protagonist Ryland Grace wakes up on a spaceship with no memory of how he got there, so the tension comes from figuring out the mystery. Solving the mystery reveals that Ryland is on a dangerous mission to save Earth from a climate apocalypse.* Again, there’s plenty of tension, both because Ryland is personally in danger and because all human life on Earth might be wiped out.
The tension builds throughout the book, naturally rising to its highest point in the climax: Ryland and his alien buddy Rocky have to take their ship into a planet’s upper atmosphere so they can gather critical microbes. That might not be a problem for the USS Enterprise or Millennium Falcon, but Ryland’s ship is much closer to what NASA can build today. Even a light whiff of atmosphere might tear it apart. Again, the tension in this sequence is excellent, full of well-established danger that’s averted only at the last second. A top-quality climax all around.
So if the tension is so good, why is Weir’s book on this list? Because after the climax, the story keeps going. I don’t mean it goes into resolution or epilogue either. Ryland and Rocky haven’t technically solved the climate crises on their respective worlds yet, so they set to work on that. As you might expect, the tension is much lower in this section. Compared to the climax, Ryland and Rocky have plenty of time and a relatively simple problem of microbe breeding to solve. After the pulse-pounding action of saving their ship from certain destruction, this new problem is almost yawn inducing.
When they inevitably solve the breeding issue, the book still isn’t over! Instead, Ryland putters around his spaceship for a while, only performing routine tasks. There’s a kind of meta-tension here if you’re genre savvy, as it feels like something should be happening, but nothing is happening. It’s a bit like being in a grocery story five minutes after they’ve announced closing time.* Beyond being unpleasant, this meta-tension doesn’t actually do anything for the story. Eventually, the story actually ends when Ryland is confronted with the choice of either returning to Earth or saving Rocky, whose ship has broken down. Obviously, Ryland saves his best friend, and then we transition into the actual resolution and epilogue.
Why does the otherwise-excellent Project Hail Mary have a major tension slump at the end? Because the climax is in the wrong place. The climax is not only the story’s highest-tension point, but it’s also where the major story threads have to resolve. If they don’t, you end up with this novel’s situation: rushing to tie up loose ends after the story is effectively over. Ideally, the plot would be arranged so that Ryland and Rocky solve the microbe breeding problem first, then make their daring atmospheric flight. Alternatively, it’s always possible to raise the tension even higher, but at that point a lot of readers will be turned off because the story is actually too tense. Both options would be challenging to implement, as the novel’s plot is very complicated and leans hard on realism, but I’d certainly be willing to give it a try if Andy Weir ever wants to hire me for content editing.
Enough about semi-realistic space stories – it’s time for a good old-fashioned steampunk adventure on the streets of Cairo! P. Djèlí Clark’s debut novel begins as a murder mystery, where protagonist Fatma must track down a sorcerous enemy who claims to be the one responsible for bringing magic back into the world: al-Jahiz. The novel has powerful magic, enigmatic djinn, and anti-colonial resistance. Sounds pretty exciting!
Unfortunately, for the first third at least, it isn’t. The reason why starts in the prologue,* where we watch a racist English guy listen to an even more racist English guy addressing their secret society of racist English guys. Then the villains shows up to brutally murder them. Oh no? Murder is still wrong, I guess, but I highly doubt many folks will read this section and feel particularly sad that the colonizers got what was coming to them.
Already this prologue reduces tension because so far all we know is that someone killed a bunch of racists. But we’re not done yet. Next, Agent Fatma is called in to investigate the murder. To her, this is a mystery, and mysteries have some tension all on their own. But it’s not a mystery to us because we already saw it happen! We don’t know everything of course, like the murderer’s true identity, but we know how the murders happened and we even got a brief monologue on the murderer’s motivation. It takes Fatma a while just to catch up. I’d say the lesson here is to not put spoilers in your prologue, except that I don’t think you should put anything in your prologue.
After checking out the crime scene, Fatma gets down to investigating, but the tension continues to lag because it’s not clear what’s at stake. We have no compelling reason to think the villain will strike again, as the original murders were motivated by the racist secret society doing some very specific cultural appropriation. The book tries to backtrack by establishing that the secret society’s leader was actually cool and that one of the victims was an Egyptian woman just trying to secure funding for her temple, but it’s too late. Even if we cared about the dead racists, tension is created by worry over what the villain will do next, not what they’ve already done. If future murders aren’t a problem, then Fatma has all the time in the world for her investigation.
But then she discovers a lead on the villain’s whereabouts, and there’s a chance to turn things around. Maybe now we’ll discover that the bad guy is up to something truly nefarious! Indeed, we learn that he’s… giving speeches in Cairo’s slums about the injustice of an economic system that impoverishes so many for the benefit of a wealthy few. Oh boy, better put a stop to that right away. Can’t have the poors getting ideas!
Clearly the author wants a sympathetic villain who will make the hero reconsider their position, like Black Panther’s Killmonger or Legend of Korra’s Kuvira. Fair enough, but for that to work, we still need to know why the villain’s plan is dangerous. That’s why Killmonger announces early that he plans to launch a world war and why Kuvira’s first major act as an antagonist is to put a neutral city under siege.
At this point in A Master of Djinn, the only tension comes from worrying that the villain might actually inspire people to rise up, but even that seems unlikely. Egypt is a powerful nation with a well-equipped security apparatus, and as we see at the villain’s rally, not even the most marginalized citizens seem prone to violent revolt. They only get rowdy when the cops try to arrest the villain during his speech. For that matter, a lot of readers will be hoping for the people to rise up, as the book is pretty good at establishing the injustice of Gilded Age industrialism.
Most of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books suffer tension problems, and it’s usually for the same reason: Aslan. Lewis simply cared more about telling kids to worship Lion Jesus than he did about telling a good story. The Magician’s Nephew is interesting though, as it shows that Lewis did know how to create tension when he wanted to.
We start out with Digory and Polly being kids in London, and right away we learn Digory’s uncle is a secretive guy who studies sorcery in his mysterious lab. Now we’re talking! We also learn that Digory has always been creeped out by his uncle, and the omniscient narrator gives us a few more hints that the uncle is up to no good. Since this mystery hasn’t been spoiled for us by an errant prologue, it creates plenty of tension for a children’s story.
Then the uncle ups the tension significantly by sending Polly across into another dimension as part of a magical experiment. Digory has to go after her, or she might not be able to get back. Very nice. We have no idea what’s waiting for our heroes across the dimensional barrier, so tension is high. Once Digory crosses over, the pair find themselves in the ruins of a dead civilization. Tension is a bit lower as nothing is immediately threatening them, but it’s still at a decent baseline. Something wiped out this world, and it could be coming for them next!
The lower tension as they investigate feels like natural pacing, as stories benefit from the occasional quiet scene between moments of high tension. When Digory accidentally frees the evil witch Jadis who destroyed this world in the first place, it seems like tension is about to rise again, but instead it plummets as all three characters are yanked back to London.
Once in the real world, Jadis’s powers no longer function, and she has no idea how to keep a low profile. It’s not long before the police are after her for stealing jewelry and assaulting anyone who crosses her path. Without her magic, Jadis is just a stronger-than-average human, nothing the cops can’t handle. No one is in serious danger, and it looks like the big villain will soon be taken into custody. It’s hard to imagine tension getting much lower.
Then Lewis has the kids inexplicably pull Jadis back across the dimensional barrier and we run into the one thing that could possibly reduce tension further: Aslan. He’s in the process of creating Narnia, as you do when you’re Lion Jesus, and is completely impervious to Jadis’s attacks. Jadis then flees in terror. Great, so we’ve now met an all-powerful, benevolent being who can wipe out the villain any time he likes. Is the story over yet? Don’t you wish.
Instead, Aslan sends Digory and Polly to fetch a magic apple because when there’s a dangerous witch running around, the first thing you do is send young children on errands where they might run into her. That’s just puppeteering 101. The only remaining smidge of tension is a worry that Digory will give in to temptation and steal an apple for himself. Not only is that way below the tension level at the start of the book, but it’s also undercut by the knowledge that Aslan set all of this up on purpose. This isn’t a genuine character moment; it’s an experiment Lion Jesus is running in his human experimentation lab.
This is all clearly by design. Narnia books are Christian apologia first and novels second, so Lion Jesus has to be in total control of everything even when it sabotages the story. The lesson to take away is that messages need to work for the story into which they are written. If they don’t, you’ll end up with a lot of boring contrivances.*
A24’s latest film has done something truly amazing: driven a bunch of confused viewers to read the 14th-century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in hopes that it might explain what the heck is going on in this movie. Spoilers: it does not. Fortunately, there’s one thing we can explain: why this movie has almost zero tension from beginning to end.
After a couple of false starts, the movie finally gets going when an armored Ent rides into court and offers to exchange blows with one of Arthur’s knights. Gawain cuts the Ent’s head off, but surprise, the Ent doesn’t die. Now he’s gonna cut Gawain’s head off next year. So the most obvious source of tension is concern over Gawain’s physical well-being. That fails for a few reasons.
First, if there’s one thing that people know about this story, it’s that Gawain doesn’t die. Second, we see right away that Gawain’s mother, Morgan,* is the one who summoned the head-optional Ent in the first place. There’s nothing to indicate Morgan wants her son dead, so he’ll probably be fine. It’s too bad that particular tidbit wasn’t saved for a later reveal, as it could have made for an interesting mystery. As it is, we never find out what Morgan is trying to accomplish in this story, other than lowering the tension.
Reducing tension even further is Gawain’s near-total lack of agency. As he travels to his scheduled beheading-by-Ent, bad things happen to and around him, but nothing he does has any effect on it. He gets mugged without fighting back, and then he’s given all the time in the world to cut himself free after the muggers run off of their own accord. He falls down a cliff and is completely fine. A rural aristocrat seduces him, and he seems to have very little opinion on the matter. The one exception is when Gawain chooses to help a headless ghost get her skull back. This is, incidentally, the best part of the movie, but that’s another article. When a character is just along for the ride, all the calamity in the world doesn’t create tension because tension comes from uncertainty. If it feels like the story is running on rails, then there’s no uncertainty, even if we technically don’t know the ending yet.
So there’s close to zero tension over Gawain’s safety, but tension doesn’t have to come from physical danger. Several critics insist this is a morality tale, so the tension could come from Gawain’s arc instead. What if he didn’t learn and grow as a person? That just wouldn’t do!
Naturally, we run into more problems with this interpretation: What is Gawain’s arc supposed to be, exactly? It isn’t gaining courage, because he has plenty of that at the beginning when he challenges an Ent to a fight. It could be about keeping his word and taking the Ent’s return blow as promised, but then why is there a bit at the end where he’s only worthy if he gets rid of his magical protection? The Ent clearly had magical protection of his own, so it’s hardly cheating. The movie would also have to show us how Gawain’s journey made him grow from someone who wouldn’t take the blow to someone who would, and it doesn’t have time for that. Not when there are awkward seductions to get through and random giants to stare at.
But the most insurmountable obstacle to creating tension from Gawain’s character arc is that we have to like him for that to work. If we don’t, then who cares if he grows as a person? That’s an issue, because Gawain doesn’t treat his girlfriend well, goes straight for the kill against an unarmed Ent, and has to be badgered into handing over a coin in exchange for directions. Plus, after the opening, he randomly becomes a total coward, immediately surrendering to a group of muggers despite being better armed and equipped. By the end, it’s truly difficult to care what happens to him, physically or emotionally. It’s also difficult to stay awake because the film’s lack of tension makes it incredibly dull.
For our final entry, we examine another story that begins with decent tension but then takes a hard turn into snooze town. After watching paint dry at the local tavern for a scene or two, we learn that the town is being threatened by mysterious spider demons. Protagonist Kvothe is able to defeat a small group of them, but it’s a serious effort and there are likely more on the way. Wow, sounds exciting!
Surprise, that’s all a framing device so we can listen to Kvothe tell us about his backstory. Don’t worry, I’m sure that’ll be just as good. The backstory in question starts off with Kvothe as a young child being the best at both music and magic. He’s so good at them, you won’t even believe how good he is. That’s a lot of candy, but no tension so far. Then Kvothe’s entire family gets murdered while he’s out in the woods. Surely that’s good for some tension, right?
Well, no. It’s certainly sad, but there’s no indication that any of the murderers are coming after Kvothe or anyone else, so there’s no tension. From there, Kvothe spends several years as a starving urchin, first in the woods and then on the streets of a nearby town. This certainly could have tension, as living on the streets is dangerous at the best of times, but it doesn’t for two reasons. First, Kvothe is telling this story himself, so we know he’ll be okay. Second, this section is told almost entirely in summary. If Kvothe’s trials and tribulations aren’t even worth a full scene, then they won’t create any tension. There’s also the small matter of Kvothe having a rich mentor he could have asked for help at any time. The book even lampshades this by claiming Kvothe was so traumatized he forgot about the mentor for three years. Sure, why not?
Finally, we reach a section the author actually seems interested in: Kvothe goes to magic university. This part merits full scenes rather than summary, and at first it even has a little tension. Kvothe needs to attend magic school, but he has no money, so he has to do so well on the entrance exam that they give him a full-ride scholarship. That’s a challenge even for someone as hyper competent as Kvothe, especially since he’s much younger than most other applicants. Once he gets in, he also has to do extremely well in class to keep his scholarship, while still finding time for side jobs to pay for food. That’s some decent conflict and tension, right?
Wrong, and the reason is that the author forgot to include a time limit. If Kvothe can’t perfectly ace the entrance exam or maintain his ambitious class load, all he needs to do is take a year off to save some money. We see that getting a job is no problem* because he’s so great at everything, and nothing bad will happen if he takes a little longer to graduate. He won’t even be behind the other students because, as previously mentioned, he’s much younger than they are.
The only fig leaf of tension comes from the idea that Kvothe wants to get revenge for his murdered family, so he has to learn more magic right now. The problem is that his family is already dead, and they aren’t getting any more dead, nor is there anything to indicate that the killers will permanently escape justice if he doesn’t go after them right away. He already spent several years as a highly summarized street urchin; taking a year off to make money won’t be any worse. And if there were some kind of time limit, it would only highlight how silly it is that Kvothe isn’t asking his rich mentor for a loan.
There’s also a love story going on during the magic school section, so could that be a source of tension? No. Even if it were a good love story rather than Kvothe creeping on a girl whose main trait is flakiness, Name of the Wind has raised the stakes far too high for a romance to provide tension. When families are murdered and the protagonist is in danger of starving, relationship drama can’t provide much tension the way it can in a dedicated love story.
In the midst of all this, there is one moment of actual tension. Kvothe treks out into the wilderness chasing a rumor about his family’s killers, and he comes across a dragon-like creature that’s gone berserk from eating fantasy drugs. Kvothe then has to stop the creature from destroying a nearby town. It’s a difficult task with high stakes and an urgent time limit – everything a story needs for tension. But afterward, it’s back to zero tension magic school and then the somehow even lower tension framing device before the story ends.
On the bright side, we can easily point out what sabotages Name of the Wind’s tension. First, we have a completely unnecessary framing device that not only gives us false expectations for what the story would be about but also assures us that Kvothe will survive whatever happens to him. Then the story is obligated to cover long sections of Kvothe’s life, most of which need to be summarized. Finally, a combination of Kvothe having way too much candy and not nearly enough urgency sabotages the magic school section. What we’re left with is a bland mess that’s only compelling for readers who really like Kvothe.
It’s not super common for stories to be completely devoid of tension like Green Knight and Name of the Wind are. More often, they simply have stretches where tension dips too low, like the first three entries. Even short tension failures can be catastrophic though, as it only takes a few boring pages to convince readers that they’d have more fun playing video games than continuing your story. Tension will keep them reading, so don’t neglect it!
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