We love a dangerous sword fight, but we also love a relaxing dance by moonlight. Can we have both? Yes! In fact, it’s important to understand how high and low tension arcs work together. Even the grimmest dark fantasy story needs moments of levity, and even the lightest fluff piece needs a little something to keep readers turning the page. This week, we talk about how different levels of tension interact with each other, where they go in the story, and how you decide what a story is “about.”
Generously transcribed by Suzanne. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris.
Oren: And I’m Oren.
Chris: You thought you were listening to this podcast to hear about storytelling, but the shadows are closing in.
Chris: Waiting for us to say the word because they can steal our life essence if we say it on accident.
Chris: But anyway, nevermind that. Let’s just talk about storytelling. We might mention the shadows a couple of times, but are we gonna bother to do anything about them? Eh, you know, maybe if we feel like it.
Oren: So basically, this has now become like a really high stakes episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with the secret word. But instead of everyone partying when the secret word is said, we just die. I’m prepared to pitch this grimdark reboot to any streaming service that will have me.
Chris: So this episode, we’re going to talk about high tension arcs, low tension arcs, and the way they interact when they are together.
Oren: Must they though? Could they not simply be in different stories and I could only have to deal with my high tension arcs forever? Low tension arcs are hard and they get confusing and authors get weird about them. And I don’t like them. They should leave. No more low tension arcs.
Chris: I think that people just need to learn how to do low tension arcs better. Because usually, when I see people attempt low tension arcs, they just have no structure at all. And so a big thing is trying to show people how you create structure regardless of how high or how low your tension is.
Oren: Alright, Chris, well, how do you do that then? Tell me the secrets.
Chris: Alright, I’ll tell you the secret.
Oren: Alright, please.
Chris: You ready?
Chris: Always be solving problems.
Oren: Ooh, I feel like we’ve done this before.[Laughter]
Chris: Yeah, I mean, that’s it. Tricky thing about this is that they’re actually kind of the same in concept. People just think of them differently because people think about specifics. They think about the specific stories they’ve consumed. And, you know, all the movies they’ve watched, often tend to be high tension. And so they’re not thinking but they work exactly the same way. And so since I’m very conceptual, it’s hard for me to be like, okay, so what does a person need when they are planning a low tension story to show how these concepts would apply to what they’re doing?
Oren: Yeah, well, I mean, it sometimes can be trickier in the specifics, right? I mean, if we’re talking about low tension story arcs, in a story that also has high tension story arcs, we’re usually talking about relationship arcs. But not always, but usually.
Chris: Right, or more personal level stuff. So should we talk about high tension and low tension separately and then talk about how they come together?
Oren: Yeah, so, you’ve already pointed out they’re sort of the same. It’s just a question of how much is at stake is a big indicator of tension and how difficult does it look like it will be to overcome is another indicator of tension. And how urgent is it? Those are all tension choices that will affect whether or not you’re dealing with a high tension story or a low tension one.
Chris: Right. Yeah, let’s go over that. Let’s go over what makes a story tense so you even know why your tension is. Is this a high tension arc I’m dealing with or a low tension arc? So yeah, Oren just listed the four requirements. The one that people talk about probably the most is the stakes. So I would generally consider any stakes that are life or death to be high tension, and any stakes that are about personal happiness to be low tension. And I would consider if you could lose your home or your job or your business might fail, I would consider that medium tension. So you might think of it as lower tension than fights, but I wouldn’t consider that super low. It can certainly carry a story.
Oren: It’s also worth mentioning that people care more about negative stakes than positive ones. So that’s why losing a job is going to be higher stakes and create more tension than getting a new job, unless you establish that if they don’t get the new job, they’ll lose something else.
Chris: Yeah, the stakes are always: what bad thing could happen? So a positive outcome is never the real stakes and never the source of tension. So for instance, if somebody needs to get a new job or they’ll lose their home, it’s not the job that’s the stakes, it’s the potential loss of their home. I think stakes are really good for setting what you ultimately want the tension of that particular arc to be. So if you have to make a permanent adjustment, we’ll talk about that, there are reasons to both raise and lower tension in your storyline. Changing the stakes is a good way to adjust whether this is an arc that inherently trends towards higher tension or trends towards lower tension. Then we have the uncertainty or difficulty, right? If it’s too easy to solve, there’s no tension there. And that’s one I would say in most cases, you just want it to be difficult. But difficulty matters because if at any point in your story, it feels too easy, like if your protagonist takes a step forward in solving the problem, that’s a great time when you want to raise difficulty. That lever is more important for pacing during the story as you continue an arc. And then Oren also mentioned urgency, which I think is the best way to make a temporary adjustment. So if you want an arc to start out low tension, and then become much higher tension, urgency is just a really great way to do that, because it’s really easy to take a deadline and have it suddenly jump forward. Have a twist where you know, we thought we had a year to do this, but no, we have tomorrow.
Oren: Right. And urgency is how you can take an arc that would otherwise be lower tension because it has maybe lower difficulty or lower stakes, and make it the primary one for a scene, or what have you, is that you make it more urgent. This is why it’s more urgent for Luke Skywalker to deal with the stormtrooper right in front of him, then to destroy the Death Star. In that scene, the stormtrooper and dealing with them is the most important, the highest tension arc because it’s the most urgent.
Chris: And there’s one more factor that isn’t really important in this context, which is attachment. Basically, whatever is at stake has to matter to the audience. And so if a character is going to die and the audience hates that character, well, that might not be very tense. But in most cases, if we’re talking about protagonists, we always want attachment to be high. So that’s never something that we manipulate up or down in order to change the tension of any particular story arc.
Oren: Yeah, please save your arguments for I don’t want people to like my protagonist for later. We’ll have that discussion in another podcast.[Laughter]
Chris: So there’s no clear dividing line between when an arc is low versus high tension. We often talk about external versus internal arcs. And even that is kind of relative where we have arcs that are more about some person’s growth and happiness, right, which are much more internal, and then a relationship arc, sometimes can act as an external arc or an internal arc. It’s kind of in the middle. And then we have something that’s happening in the outside world with either life or death stakes or losing your job or problems that are about more than happiness, we consider an external arc and those tend to be higher tension. So one way to have a low tension storyline is to focus on relationships. But that’s not the only way you could potentially also have an external arc that’s just the stakes aren’t quite as high. You know, if you’re unhappy at your job, and you want to get a better job, that’s kind of external, right, because you’re dealing with external problems. But the stakes are maybe whether you’ll continue to have to be eating ramen, or being your kind of dead end job, and those are relatively low as opposed to the chance of losing your job and your home would just be more tense inherently.
Oren: Another very clear example of a story that uses urgency to make an otherwise lower tension arc the primary arc is from Legends and Lattes, which we mentioned a couple episodes ago in our building stuff podcast. Because in that one, we have the relatively low stakes of Viv trying to start a coffee shop and trying to make her coffee shop successful. And then there’s the significantly higher stakes of she owes protection money to the local fantasy mob. And that is a higher stakes problem, but it’s less urgent because the money isn’t due till the end of the month. Whereas the problems she’s having with the coffee shop are right now. So it makes sense. And narratively, it feels right for her to deal with the coffee shop stuff immediately and to hopefully build up to dealing with the fantasy mob problem later. Now, unfortunately, Legends and Lattes is actually pretty bad at resolving problems. So you know, the resolution to that just ends up being Oh, whatever, it turns out the mob was nice. And now we’re friends. It’s like, all right, sure, cool.
Chris: So the most important thing to remember when you have something like Legends and Lattes, and you have some high tension problems and some less tension problems, is that always, always, always the highest tension arcs take over the story. The whole point of tension is to draw in the audience and they are just naturally more preoccupied with the highest tension arc. Now don’t get me wrong, some people absolutely love the emotional side of the story. And that’s what they care about the most. But regardless, you know, overall, you’re gonna have a lot of problems if you try to spend all of your time on the lowest tension arcs instead of the highest tension. And for instance, some people make the claim that a story is about character growth, right?
Chris: This is a hilarious thing in Save the Cat!, because Save the Cat! puts Star Wars and heist movies into a strange genre called the Golden Fleece. And then Blake Snyder, the writer of this book, claims that, what distinguishes this is that they’re about character growth. That’s the point. That is not true of Star Wars. We have a huge looming Death Star that’s gonna destroy planets if we don’t get rid of it. It’s not really about–we can’t say it’s about Luke’s growth. If that’s what’s involved with that, then it’s lower, so much lower tension than the external problems in the story.
Oren: And what’s funny is that what these people do is they declare, aha, you see actually character arcs are what the story is about. Save the Cat! Writes A Novel gets really into this. And I do plan on writing at least one article about it. But the author of that book, Jessica Brody, just straight up declares that character growth and the character arcs are what the story is actually about and everything else is just window dressing. So what they do is they’ll declare that and then point to a story and be like, oh, hey, so you know, this really high tension external conflict that you thought was what the story was about, but didn’t you realize the main character also has this arc. And since we previously declared that’s what the movie is about, the character arc, therefore, it must be about that arc, and we were right the whole time. So they declare an axiom, and then they use their axiom as evidence that their axiom is correct. And it is truly spectacular. It is bizarre.
Chris: [Laughter] But I just don’t think that you can say that a story is about the character growth or the internal arcs in any meaningful way, unless those are what is designed to draw the most attention in the story. And that is just not true of Luke’s growth in Star Wars. Absolutely not. But you could say things like, for instance, the Murderbot Diaries, that they have basically episodes. The external arcs are very episodic from book to book. They pretty much finish. And the thing that really holds those books together is the ongoing growth and progress of the main character, right? So you could say the Murderbot Diaries is about Murderbot’s character growth, if you want to, because that’s kind of what holds the series together. But that’s because of the absence of high tension arcs that are spanning multiple stories in that series.
Oren: You could say the same thing with Fruits Basket. Fruits Basket is about Tohru’s relationships, because that’s what the story is about. Because Toru isn’t fighting an intergalactic war against a Death Star, right? She doesn’t have a higher tension conflict that takes over until later.
Chris: Let’s go into more and I’ll loop back on Tohru. What it means when an arc takes over, so that you know concretely, what’s the issue here and why you have to know this. So it means first of all, the protagonists have to focus on solving the highest tension problem. We talk about always be solving problems. The main problem they have to solve is whatever is highest tension. So the issue with Fruits Basket is at some point in time, we have this whole family that’s under the curse and Kyo is even going to be imprisoned in a couple months unless this curse is broken and he’s Tohru’s love interest. And so she’s like, oh, I want to break the curse, but then she just doesn’t. She just hangs around with people instead of solving the curse. And that’s frustrating because the curse is now a much higher tension problem than the personal issues that she’s working on when she’s hanging around.
Oren: Right. And if you want to, you can create what might in another context be the highest tension problem and just make it part of the backdrop. If the curse was just a thing that was going to happen, like it was just predetermined, there was nothing Tohru could do about it, and that was just going around. And then we could just have the relationships happen in that context, that might work. But Fruits Basket specifically frames the curse as a problem for Tohru to solve, but then does not do that. And that’s why it’s frustrating.
Chris: We have to lower the tension in some way. So saying that this curse is unsolvable is one way of doing that. Because if the difficulty goes up, it raises tension until we get to the point where solving a problem is impossible. And then there isn’t any tension anymore, because we don’t have the uncertainty. That’s what the difficulty is for is creating a sense of uncertainty over what will happen. And if it’s too easy, we don’t have the uncertainty. And if it’s impossible, we don’t have the uncertainty. So that would actually remove the tension. Or we talked about urgency is a great way of doing this. So as long as the curse wasn’t urgent, and Tohru had a long time to solve it, that would also make it much easier for her to just hang around. The fact that Kyo is going to be in prison once he graduates from high school really makes it so that’s hard to do. And it’s not that it’s not okay for your protagonist to hang out and have fun and focus on smaller personal issues. You just can’t have, again, that higher tension arc taking over. So that’s one issue that happens when an arc takes over. Another is that audiences just get really impatient if there isn’t any movement in the highest tension arc. Why are you getting any closer to solving the curse Tohru? Why not? This was an issue in the Mandalorian. I talked about this in my article on movement, where what happened in the Mandalorian is they set up early this really high tension arc of people being after baby Yoda or Grogu. And Mando is trying to protect baby Yoda. And all of the bounty hunters are after them. And so that’s a really high tension arc. And so when we have episodes, where instead of making it feel like that plot has progressed in any way, it’s getting closer to coming to a head or to a conclusion. Instead, we’re just like, okay, well, we’re just going to hang out on this planet for an episode and do this job. That’s when people start getting frustrated about it being filler, because they expected that highest tension arc to move, and it didn’t. And then the last thing is that a higher tension arc can make lower tension arcs feel trivial. And we had a whole podcast where we talked about teen supernatural drama. And this is the central issue of teen supernatural drama. Because usually the supernatural element has high stakes, and the drama part has low stakes. So once you combine them, the teen drama just feels like it’s not important, and it’s just kind of petty.
Oren: This is why if you wanted to have a fun romance sequence where your characters go on a date, you wouldn’t in the middle of that date, have one of the ladies get a phone call that’s like, we need you to save the world because the bad guy is about to detonate a mega bomb and then have her be like, I’m gonna keep going with this date, unless that was like a joke that you were doing. Unless you were playing as a joke, in which case, sure. But if that’s a serious moment, you wouldn’t do that, because that would just be incredibly frustrating. Why are you doing that to your date? Now the date can’t be fun for anybody.
Chris: At that point, if those arcs are competing for time at all, again, sometimes one arc is too high. If the teen drama is really important to you, then the best thing that you can do is actually to lower the tension of the supernatural elements. And for instance, use them to enhance interpersonal drama, instead of using them to threaten people’s lives. We watched Paper Girls recently. And this was such a great example because time travel is used primarily to just create drama, where the girls they meet their future selves, and then they’re all disillusioned about their future selves, or they’re just having fights with each other because of the stress of being sent to another time against your will by accident. And of course, it does have some external stuff in it. But that’s the bad part of the show.
Oren: Right. That’s actually part of the issue there. Is that we have this great interpersonal drama between these kids and the disillusion they have with their adult selves. That’s all very cool. And then it’s like, oh, yeah, here’s a time war. And it’s like, well, kids can’t do anything about that. So I guess we’ll watch other characters do stuff for a while and the kids will hide in a basement.
Chris: We didn’t need the time war. The drama was fine.
Oren: I would have taken that time war right out of there. No time war, please.
Chris: And using time travel for drama is a fine use of time travel and quite novel. How many stories are doing that? Yeah, that was great. But anyway, that’s what it means, and that’s why you have to be careful. You can’t just throw a really high tension arc in there thinking that’s going to be your climax, when actually you want your story to be about your character relationships, for instance.
Oren: So here’s a thought. This is something that I’ve recommended clients do before. So maybe about to find out that was wrong, and I shouldn’t have recommended them to do that. Because we’ve talked about how in general, what you want is for your tension to have like a staggered line where it goes up, and then it dips down for a lower tension moment so that your audience can catch their breath. And then it goes back up. And now it’s higher than it was before. So you know, trends upwards, right? I have suggested to clients who had romance stories that were getting in the way of the high tension external conflict that they wanted to tell, that they use their quiet scenes as ways to further the romance. Is that reasonable? Does that sound like a thing that is good that I should have been telling them?
Chris: Usually, in most cases, it’s okay to not focus on the throughline for that occasional dip scene in just one scene and then move on. But also in a lot of these scenarios, what you can do is have them, for instance, plan their next moves in an external arc, but also there’s romantic tension. It’s usually easier to multitask when they’re doing something to solve the big problem that involves more coordination and interpersonal interaction. That’s a lot easier to then work the romance in there. So ideally, I would make it some kind of planning scene where romance stuff goes down. But yeah, I think that’s fine. Some high tension problems, the characters can’t actually sit around for evening and go on a date. It does depend from story to story.
Oren: Yeah, it has to make sense in the context. But a lot of what I’m dealing with is authors who have been like, Oh, hey, there’s a big thing that’s gonna blow up the planet, but it’s not around right now. So let’s spend five chapters going on dates, which is what I’m dealing with.
Chris: Yeah, I think that’s a good recommendation. Again, with pacing if you are looking at your story, and you’re trying to improve the pace, a very simple thing to do is just put your lowest tension moments immediately after your highest tension ones. So if you have a really low tension scene, like just a romance where the characters are flirting over coffee, or what have you, but you don’t want to have a tension sag, just see if you can move it around and find where you have a scene that’s really suspenseful, or you have a fight or something like that, and just put your coffee scene immediately afterwards. So you have that tense moment. And then you people are ready for a change. And they’re like, Oh, well, you know what, I’m kind of exhausted from that fight. So actually, a flirtatious coffee scene sounds great. And then immediately after the coffee scene, you’re ready with a scene that’s higher tension than the coffee scene.
Oren: All right, well, it’s good to know that I haven’t been giving the wrong recommendation for five years. Big load off my mind.[Laughter]
Chris: But I’d really like to talk about building a plot in the background.
Oren: Oh, yeah, people do love the idea of doing that.
Chris: It’s possible, but it’s tricky because it does require just the right balance of tension between your arcs. A lot of times storytellers just don’t get that right, and so building an arc in the background doesn’t work at all in most of the stories we see where people try it. But it is possible to do it. Two things. First, the plot in the background can’t be too tense, or it will be frustrating that it’s in the background.
Chris: So we said if it’s tense, it will take over so you can’t make it too tense. And again, as we mentioned, urgency is the easiest way to manipulate this. You can manipulate it in other ways. For instance, maybe it turns out the situation has much higher stakes than people thought. But usually urgency is the easiest thing to raise up and down that way. Just like with Legends and Lattes we have building a business and then we have a potentially higher tension plotline with somebody who has a protection racket, but the money’s not due until the end of the month. So that’s low tension. And then we get to the end of the month and oh no, it’s due now, conflict comes to ahead. So that’s kind of the way to do it.
Oren: Yeah, usually if you were going to use one of the other ones, it would usually have something where the reader and the characters don’t realize the full extent of what’s happening. So in Legends and Lattes, it uses urgency. But if you wanted to say use stakes instead, instead of knowing that the money was due at the end of the month, you might have a little side plot of stuff occasionally getting stolen from the coffee shop. That’s annoying, and the protagonist might try some things to stop it, but it’s not the biggest problem. She has other issues to worry about. And then towards the end, she might realize that, oh, hey, they’ve been stealing stuff from the coffee shop to create a magic ritual to poison all of my coffee. And then once she discovers that, that becomes the most urgent problem because the stakes are much higher than we thought they were.
Chris: Or somebody tells her, and this seems unlikely, that if she doesn’t pay the protection racket price, that they’ll just give her a slap on the wrist and then last minute learns, oh, no, they’ll kill you or something.
Oren: Yeah, that’s a possibility.
Chirs: Generally with protection rackets the assumption is that if you don’t pay, there’ll be violence. But that’s the kind of stake manipulation that you could do in some stories if you want to. And then of course, besides having the plot in the background, it can’t be too tense or it won’t be in the background. You need something in the foreground. And this is, again, people are like, I want my plot to build up in the background, but they don’t have anything to replace it. So you’ve got to have your episodes, your child arcs, your internal arcs, you always be solving problems.
Oren: I talked about this in a recent article where I mentioned the slow burn, which is a trope that everyone wants, but most people have a really hard time pulling it off specifically because they don’t have anything to happen in the foreground while the slow burn is building in the background.
Chris: You have to have some kind of structure there. So if we’re doing for instance, Legends and Lattes, where it’s about the success of this business, we have problems like oh no, we open but we don’t have any customers, that kind of thing, maybe a health inspector is coming and the health inspector has it out for us. That is not actually a problem they have in the book, but it probably could have. The landlord is raising our lease. Those are problems that they might have to solve in the meantime, even though the protection racket is not due until the end of the month.
Oren: You can have relationship arcs in the foreground while your slow burn arc builds in the background. And that’s what Fruits Basket does for its first two seasons. There’s the long term relationship arcs between Tohru, Kyo, and Yuki, which is sort of the heart of the show. But because those can’t resolve in a single episode, instead, it has shorter term relationship arcs between Tohru and whatever other member of the Zodiac family shows up that week.
Chris: A lot of times since this is somewhat episodic, it’s like, new person shows up, oh, no, people don’t get along. There’s our problem. So we got to solve that problem. I know. I bet if we go on this little beach vacation, we can get these two characters to reconcile, right? We’re solving that problem. And then the characters go have their fun at the beach. And we have reconciliation. And the next episode, oh, no, the hard ass mother is showing up and she’s gonna disapprove of what the character is doing with their life. And, you know, and then we have that problem to solve. So we have those kinds of relationship arcs where we have to resolve conflicts between characters.
Oren: Yep. This also applies to big war stories, the Temeraire series has the slow burn arc of defeating Napoleon, which takes eight books. The reason that it takes eight books is that each book has some new big problem. Sometimes it’s about something that Napoleon is directly doing. Sometimes it’s just another thing that happens that’s going to stop them from defeating Napoleon if they don’t deal with it. And so in that case, again, you have the slow burn Napoleon plot, and then you have a series of foreground storylines that still have all of the tension and the satisfaction and the conflict and all those things that they need. Right? You can’t just say, well, my story is a slow burn about defeating Napoleon and then have your characters just kind of hang out for eight books. No one’s gonna stick around for that. But don’t worry, in book eight, they’ll get to him eventually. Okay, so with that, I think we’re gonna call this episode to a close.
Chris: If you found this episode helpful for a project you’re working on, please consider becoming a patron. Just go to patreon.com/mythcreants and choose a pledge level that works for you.
Oren: Before we go, I just want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Callie Macleod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next there’s Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at the RamboGeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Coulton.
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