Screenwriting Secret: Don’t Relieve the Tension

gmail, checking emailI’m feeling the tension! And seeking relief.

I keep nervously checking my email. Way too often.

But I can’t help myself. I am waiting for feedback on my screenplay. Yet again.

I just spent the past two months on a new rewrite, making some adjustments requested from a group of investors who took a look at it back in February. They want more tension. My response to that was, “Yeah. No kidding.”

I knew it needed more of something, but I wasn’t quite sure what the problem was. That feedback was huge because that was the word I was looking for. And as soon as I heard it, I knew exactly what I needed to do.

No, that is not quite right. At first, I panicked because I realized that I had no idea how I was going to create tension. I recognize it, obviously, but I had no idea how to put that on the page. As I worked my way through the pages, I think I started understanding what was required.

The funny thing is that it never occurred to me to do a Google search. That is particularly surprising because I call myself the Google queen. I can find anything. I guess part of that comes from being a teacher to students who all too often complain when asked to write a research paper on, oh, let’s say legalizing marijuana, for example, that they cannot find ANYTHING on that topic. I spend a lot of time proving those students wrong.

google, google search, tension, how to create tensionBut no Google search. Instead, I just dove in. As I was writing this blog post, I thought, “I wonder if there is anything about this on Google.” Well of COURSE there is! I am almost scared to see what I should have done to create tension in my screenplay.

So I will tell you what I did, and then I will go read what some experts on Google say. Let’s see how close I was to standard advice.

Because I have never written a screenplay before, I don’t actually have a process worked out. I am pretty much winging it. I found that in trying to create tension, I did two things.

One was to take each of my characters and to exaggerate everything about them. I knew that many of them were too similar to each other, that parts of them were interchangeable. So with the magic of Final Draft, I chose a character and then printed out only his or her dialogue. That was so helpful! In my head, these characters are completely fleshed out, but I quickly learned that what I imagined them to be was in no way conveyed through their dialogue. I even had one pretty important character who serves as a catalyst to much of the plot who only had a couple of lines. Kind of hard to get audiences to care about him when he is invisible.

That gave me a chance to see each character as an individual instead of influenced by the other characters and by the plot. It also highlighted just how similar much of the dialogue was. The solution. Exaggeration. I picked up something unique about each one, and played it up.

Throughout all of this, I still make sure to periodically watch movies in my genre. So I have been able to revisit the days of watching movies with my kids when they were young: Finding Nemo, Cars, How to Train Your Dragon, Monsters vs. Aliens, Up, to name a few.

One thing I have noticed is that the one characteristic that is highlighted in each character is highlighted very explicitly. No subtly here.

Working on the characters was actually lots of fun. Well, for me it was fun! Yesterday in my college English class, I was teaching Wuthering Heights, and my favorite thing happened. A student pointed out something I had never thought about before. And I have taught that book for years. I couldn’t help myself, and I said, “Isn’t this fun??” As you might expect, I got blank stares. So you might be blankly staring at me too. But really coloring in those characters, and thus getting to know them even better, was a blast.

The next step was to read through the screenplay in its entirety and basically do the same thing with the action. I exaggerated the good times and exaggerated the bad times. That way, the swings from high to low and back again would be much stronger.

Captain, captain and the greyhounds, cute dogs, screenwriting, tension
The hero of my screenplay. Doesn’t he look like someone you would want to root for?? (except he does need a haircut – not sure how he can see!)

I also noticed during my Disney animation marathons that the obstacles thrown in the way of the hero’s journey are relentless. I had obstacles. But they weren’t relentless. I just finished watching Finding Nemo the other day, after I submitted my draft for feedback unfortunately, and even though I have seen it many many times, I found myself thinking that Nemo and his dad were just about to reunite when a new interruption dashed their hopes. This must have happened five or six times near the end. I know when I get my script back that I need to add more challenges before  the completion of the quest.

That’s it. Don’t get me wrong! It was a lot of work. I spent two months on it. But now I am waiting to hear if I managed to increase the tension.

Ok. Now I am going to look at a few websites to see what the “experts” would have advised me. Be right back!


Here are the first five sites that popped up.

Site one: Writer’s Digest

And I quote. “The stakes in fiction matter because stakes create tension. The protagonist’s ultimate happiness, perhaps even his life, depends on the outcome. If the stakes in the story are low, then tension will be weak. The stakes are often linked to inner conflict, as the protagonist wonders if what is at stake is worth it. In these situations, the story line forces him to reconsider his beliefs and values.”

Check. My protagonist does this! I do need to check and see if I can increase the stakes.

Site two: Lights Film School

“Play on Innocence: Playing on vulnerability and innocence is a great way to build tension. Audience attach strongly to children because of our seemingly innate desire to protect them. Therefore the scene when the little girl picks up the phone with a built in explosive device the audience is forced to slide towards the edge of their seats.

And although the same level of vulnerability isn’t attached to adults, a similar emotional attachment is built in when innocent people stand to lose their lives. For instance, when the athletes in the Olympic village are taken hostage the audience can’t help but hope for their safety. There is a lot of ‘squirm factor ‘s these scenes.”

I definitely can work on this when it comes to the character who is the victim of the bad guys. I can see I did not create enough vulnerability with him.

Site three: Absolute Write

“The conventional wisdom about how to keep a screenplay moving along is to cram it full of conflict. Conflict, conflict, conflict. Conflict in every scene. Well, not only is this nearly impossible, it’s also misleading. What keeps a screenplay moving along is not conflict, but tension. Conflict is two forces in opposition: two people arguing, someone trying to overcome racial adversity, someone running for her life from an axe murderer. Tension is simply this: The question of what happens next.”

I love this! Geez. I was going to take a break from my screenplay just to get some distance while people are looking at it. But now I want to pull it out to see if I do this! Argh!

Site four: Terrible Minds

“THE BEAR UNDER THE TABLE: It’s the Hitchcockian ‘bomb under the table’ example — you create shock by having a bomb randomly go off, but you create suspense and tension by revealing the bomb and letting the audience see what’s coming. The first day of a new school year creates tension not because it’s random but because you know all summer long that shit is coming. Also, for the record, I think we should revise the ‘bomb under the table’ example to a ‘bear under the table’ example. Bombs are so overdone. But two characters sitting there with a Kodiak bear slumbering secretly at their feet? Oh, snap! Sweet tension, I seek your ursine embrace!”

The funny thing is that I definitely have some instincts about all of this storytelling. But I read things like this and want to go see if I need to more explicitly display the danger lurking.

Site five: No Film School

  1. If you don’t draw out the suspense, your scene will fall flat.
  2. If you don’t alert your audience to the dramatic irony, your scene will fall flat.
Alfred Hitchcock, tension, suspense, screenwriting
The master  of suspense himself (wouldn’t want to give away his entire likeness – just a peek!)

This is a site I need to return to when I have more time. It includes videos of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of tension, explaining how to create suspense.

I’m saying that these sites are the best ones out there. These were just the first that popped up. And I feel like I have learned a lot for my next draft. Because there is always a next draft!

Good thing I like this stuff! Now I just have to wait, anxiously, for my feedback.


Anyone who has their own advice on creating tension or knows of any good websites, please include them in the comments. I can’t be the only one working on this issue!






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