Hello, everyone! I hope your holidays were well and relaxing! To start off this new year of 2018, I decided to create a writing-centered series called Ingredients for Storytelling! In each of these posts, I will discuss an element I find makes a story all the more intriguing and why.
As you can see from the title, today’s spotlight will be on tension and how creating this between characters can further enrich an already great plot.
First of all, what exactly does tension mean in literary and storytelling terms? According to the Oxford Living Dictionaries, tension may be defined as “A strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each another”. In the context of storytelling, this comes about as a result of two or more characters being forced to interact, and many times, even cooperate while maintaining opposing goals. Because of this, nearly every conversation or action shared between these characters is laced with mental or emotional strain that we label “tension”. Another way we can think of tension is a “potential for conflict”. This isn’t to say the presence of tension always necessarily leads to conflict, but rather, that the potential for conflict constantly remains just beneath the surface of the characters’ interactions, influencing their dynamic and chemistry until their opposing goals are either met or adjusted to lessen the already existing tension.
A prime example of tension can be seen in the classical hate-to-love trope—one of the most notable cases being acted out by Han and Leia from George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. As a princess and politician, Leia is the exact opposite of Han, who is a smuggler and relative loner, in nearly every way. While initially their personality differences cause a certain level of discomfort and strain, what ultimately creates tension and eventually conflict between them is the fact they retain not only different but opposing goals. Leia wants to save people’s lives and freedom by fighting against the oppressive empire. In other words, she believes in a greater cause. Han only wants to preserve his own life and freedom, and thus, has no interest in joining any cause at all…initially. However, circumstances force them to work together in order to survive, and thus, their encounters, while not violent, are rife with simultaneous conflict as well as attraction, and therein tension.
Why I love it: Like in life, in literature, TV, and movies, you can’t ever physically see tension, but you can feel it. If tension is written into a novel or script and written well, we, the audience and readers, can practically feel the strained dynamic between characters oozing off the screen and page as vividly as if we were standing next to them. And isn’t one of the main purposes of stories to draw you into the characters’ lives—to see what they see and feel what they feel—in the first place? While incorporating tension isn’t a requirement for every story, as a viewer and reader as well as a writer, I find this element often makes the characters and the world they inhabit infinitely more life-like and relatable.
What do you think? Do you like tension in the stories you read and watch? If so, what are some of your favorite examples? Please feel free to leave your comments below!