Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Screenwriting State of Emergency!


I’d like to declare a SCREENWRITING STATE OF EMERGENCY!

The year’s not quite over, but with all the scripts I’ve read so far, and believe me, I could build a fortress with all the scripts I’ve read, I’ve concluded that there’s an epidemic crisis in screenwriting today - LACK OF TENSION! Good ahead and laugh! The sad part is - I’m not even kidding. No one seems to care about it, or try to master it, or effectively use it in little genres like THRILLERS. I am so sick and tired of reading scripts, not just amateurs but pros as well, that fail to foster all the hair-raising, nerve-frazzling, unbearable tension I love.

Consider this. It’s an opening sequence to a classic movie from the late seventies, which you haven’t seen. That’s right. I guarantee that you have not seen this classic movie. Okay? Here’s the opening sequence in the film as described by the screenwriter:

A man sits in a car holding a bouquet of chrysanthemums. It’s evening, getting dark and raining. The car is a Humber Hawk and it’s parked on a cobblestone service road, next to a high brick wall. The man with the mums is listening to a voice we can’t quite make out. It could be the car radio, but his ear is cocked slightly toward the flowers.

The camera moves toward the windshield, descending slightly as it dollies forward peering into the car, about to show us what the man is doing with those mums. But when the camera arrives at the car, it surprises us, and further piques our interest, by panning off the windshield, over the wet cobblestone road, toward the brick wall. As the camera climbs the rough red bricks, going steadily higher, inducing dizziness in the viewer, the voice we’ve been hearing becomes clearer, as if the camera were hunting it. It’s an angry voice, an upper-class Oxbridge accent. “I’m here… hurry on now… can you hear? I said, I’m here.” When the camera is at the top, and before its descent, we get a glimpse of the surroundings on both sides of the wall. But instead of clarifying, it only serves to tease us more. In our one glance, from this height, we can see that inside the wall is a prison. There’s a tower, a few searchlights, and rude-looking cell blocks. On the outside, beyond the service road, we glimpse another large institution and a sign that says “Hammersmith Hospital.” But before we know what to make of that, the camera, our guide, moves down the wall toward the voice.

Inside, a tall, imperious man, dressed in prison garb, is huddled against a wall avoiding the lights and speaking urgently into a primitive walkie-talkie. “I’m here, damn it. I’m here. Now move.” The camera cuts to the outside (the very first cut in the scene) to the interior of the car. The driver speaks soothingly into his flowers. “That’s right then, I’m here. You’ll be fine… stay calm.” He starts to get out of the car, but his eyes register surprise and he stops talking. Across the service road, another car has parked and its headlights have gone off. There’s a young couple in the front, and they’re embracing feverishly. The man in the Humber Hawk mutters “Damn…” into his flowers and the voice from the other side, desperate now, says, “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“It’s bloody lovers’ lane.” He silences his flowers and then flashes his headlights at the second car, leering at the couple. They pull apart quickly, frightened by the light. The woman averts her eyes and her thwarted lover scowls and drives away. The mums are turned on again and a torrent of abuse comes from inside the prison. “Where the bloody hell are you..? You’ve bollixed it. You bloody Irish ass. I’m not going back. I’m not. I’m not going back.”

That’s all he says in his book. But I’ve read his script, too, and there’s more to this opening sequence. Man gets out of the car, turns off the flower-mic-thingee, and gets out a rope ladder. Headlights illuminate his boot as an old car approaches him. Inside’s an elderly couple. The woman leans across her driver husband and asks for directions. He answers. She can’t hear him. He repeats himself. Then there’s a question about where to park. Inside the prison, a movie’s about to finish and guards and prisoners will be entering the compound any minute. The prisoner’s getting frantic, yelling for the ladder. Outside, the elderly woman notices the flowers and wants details. Where did he buy them? Then she talks about her daughter-in-law whose liver is shot to hell. Inside, the prisoner is practically screaming for the ladder. There’s movement. They’re about to come out. Outside, not only is the couple still talking, but the man notices that there’s also a shift change at the hospital next door and more people are coming out into the street. Finally, the couple leaves. Rope ladder is thrown. The prisoner hurries over the wall just barely making it before getting caught but falls as he comes down and severely hurts himself.

TENSION, BABY!

Of this film and its screenwriter, well, I’ll let him explain it to you:

It could only be Hitchcock. Daring, outrageous, and complicated. Several things are happening at once, each component of the scene both clear and mysterious. It’s what Hitchcock liked to call “pure cinema.” By that, he meant a telling of a story in a way that has no effective equivalent in written narrative. It’s an emphasis on the visual, rather than the verbal. In the scene just described, the camera is doing one thing – traveling toward the mysterious mums; then before we can know what the flowers are, and who that fellow in the car is, the camera moves toward and then up and over the prison wall toward the angry voice. Now the soundtrack contains two unexplained voices, one desperate, the other soothing, while at the same time, the exact location of the activity is teasingly unclear. There are cars, a prison, a hospital, searchlights, and a rainy night that makes it even harder to know what we are being drawn toward. That all these things can happen simultaneously, and before we’re more than 45 seconds into the picture, is unique to the medium. Pure cinema. In fact, it was to be the opening of Hitchcock’s 54th film. Mortality intervened.

Of course, that film was to be called The Short Night but Hitch died, regrettably. It’s a fabulous, classic 70’s movie… in my head. And those quotes I provided came from screenwriter David Freeman and his book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock.


Is it me or is that sequence just a hell of a lot of fun? How many new writers today would think to include an old couple asking a million questions in order to send the tension to excruciating heights? I LOVE the escalating tension! I love the way they slowly revealed important details non-verbally to the audience. I especially love the camera work, and yes, something like that CAN be written in a spec without using camera angles, without mentioning the camera, or writing (God forbid) “we see.” Just think about it. It’s not difficult.

Instead of me writing an even longer article in which I’d meditate on all the ins and outs of tension throughout cinema history, I’d like to throw this question out there to all of my brilliant readers:

What are the keys to tension?

-MM

35 comments:

Mystery Man said...

Like all my articles, there are many, many paragraphs I've cut in order to keep the article from being too long.

Today, I'm going to share my cut paragraphs, becaue I feel passionate about these things:

I was reading a zombie script last weekend by an amateur on TriggerStreet. Didn’t do a review because I learned that he had been suspended for inappropriate behavior. So screw it. Why reward him with a review? In any case, the zombie genre is dead, no pun intended. Well, it’s not entirely dead, but you need to do something incredibly original to impress people, because, well, how many times can you see zombies before you get bored with them? However, something simple like a zombie script can be a perfectly acceptable writing exercise for newbies just so they can practice the fine art of tension. That to me is the key to a story like that or any other horror script – how much tension can you make me feel?

Over the years, I’ve noticed common patterns in amateur scripts. Weak, passive protagonists. Scenes that don’t advance the story, etc. But the biggest problem across the board has to be lack of tension. In action scripts, it’s all fights and chases without any tension (Indy IV, anyone?). In horror films, they’re too quick to show the gore without effectively building up tension first, like Jennifer’s Body. That script was one reckless leap into sudden, extreme gore after another without supplying us with any good tension, which isn’t a horror film. We’re only feeling repulsed by the gore, not scared, as we should be feeling from great tension. The gore should be the payoff.

In some cases, especially amateurs, it’s inexperience. They just aren’t used to exploiting tension and dealing with those feelings as they write those scenes, so they react to it in strange ways. For some reason, they’ll distance themselves from it. This zombie writer had his Inciting Incident take place in a subway. Terrorists try to bomb a subway, but the chemicals were mixed wrong or something, and thus, zombies were created, which is fine. However, he showed it to us via news reports on TV where we watch all the action take place at a distance. I was going to tell him, “put the camera in your mind’s eye right in the middle of the action. Establish the terrorists. Establish someone on a subway we can connect with. Do a big set piece. Build tension until the bomb goes off. Don’t keep yourself distanced from the action.”

Other writers avoid tension altogether and make key conflicts take place off screen. Are you kidding me? Or they’ll cut away from the tension too quickly just when it was getting good, just when they should be turning the heat up to unbearable levels! Other writers are very nice people and want their characters to be very nice people, too, because it’s a reflection on them, which sounds nice, but it kills the tension and bores the hell out of readers. Including me.

Scott said...

Great article again, I am learning so much from this site. I confess, looking at my work, I can see the problems in it that I could not before.

In terms of tension, I see it like this: delayed gratification. In the scene you mentioned, we know something has to break. Either the prisoner escapes, or he gets caught. But Hitchcock builds tension in that scene by delaying that, by stretching that to almost breaking point. By keeping it going further and further, the tension becomes unbearable and has to be released.

The most interesting part in the scene I thought was the prisoner getting injured after climbing the wall. That is brilliant, even after the first problem is solved, ANOTHER one comes up.

Joshua James said...

You're gonna love what I been cooking up in my lab, heh-heh.

Seriously.

GabbaGoo said...

I'm suprised that I havn't seen that particular Hitchcock movie...I am shamed face.

I must say, that I began learing tension with Hitchcock...his explanation with the bomb under a table while two people converse. I love it.

Tension to me is usually dramatic irony...meaning that the audience has an understanding of the situation, but the character has yet to grasp it. Which would be the scene that you described in the Hitchcock movie...he needs to get that ladder over but he is getting bombarded with questions from the old lady.

But, there is a screenwriting state of emergency...but the thing is, most good screenwriters are too lazy to do anything about it.

Emily Blake said...

*sigh*

Thanks, buddy. My best and most fun script is a zombie flick and I am not a newbie. I used to defend it from people who said the same stuff you did, but it didn't make the Nicholl quarterfinal so maybe it was a giant waste of my time.

Matt said...

Outside of the usual jazz about holding the moment and drawing-out every dramatic possibility, it's a matter of rhyth and release. The moment of release and everything leading up to it need to be inversely proportioned. Meaning, if the climax of the sequence is a five-second explosion, you need to have five minutes of drawn-out action leading up to it. leading up to it. If it's a three-second explosion, make it eight.

This is why, no matter how many fucking times I see this stupid fucking lazy cheap trick, when the craft is there in script and direction, I jump when the cat jumps out of the cupboard and onto/right in front of the main character. I'm waiting, waiting, waiting for this thing to happen, I know it's going to happen, and now I'm thinking it - BOOM it happened, I jumped.

I think the inverse is also true. As Clarice is getting ready to meet Lecter, Chilton tells her twice, whatever you do, don't go up to the glass. So when one of the first things she does is sit right up to the glass, our mind races back to everything Chilton was telling her - his brilliance, his capture, his incident with the nurse - as well as what's happening in front of us, our thoughts are torn in two different directions, creating a visceral response in the reader/viewer. But the payoff makes up the bulk of the scene, so the dramatically drawn-out set-up needs to be as short as possible. If those two scenes were of equal length, the film would lose its impact.

Even the old cliche, "Don't go in there!" works on this fulcrum. Character A looks at the house/bedroom,, etc. Audience: "Don't go in there!" CUT TO: Character going in there. So now the whole sequence can be tense because the set-up to the moment is so clipped.

wcdixon said...

Well I can definitively tell you what 'isn't' tension... The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

There was more tension in the late afternoon family discussion as my kids tried to convince me to take them while I hummed and hawed.

Guess who won.

terraling said...

Not that I've mastered it myself, but mystery is an important part of tension - something is going to happen but we don't know what - and as I've said before, mystery demands clarity.

The start of this unmade film beautifully demonstrates how everything has to be there for a purpose, threaded together. You can't pile on shadows, screams, random scary stuff that's not germane and hope that it will somehow escalate tension.

There's a much-linked to site where Bill Martell writes about the art of concise description (good) but I hate it where he says he puts a "someone grabs him as he enters the door!" at the bottom of a page to make the reader turn over to get to "it's his girlfriend" - that's just queering the pitch for when you want to actually establish and build tension.

Unk said...

HOPE vs. FEAR = UNCERTAINTY = TENSION

That's my formula anyway...

What the audience HOPES will happen vs. what the audience FEARS will happen makes the audience UNCERTAIN what is about to happen.

That uncertainty creates tension.

I also think your Protagonist can feel the same tension as the audience depending on the story and of course the scene but it's certainly not a requirement -- just something to think about as you write.

Great comments.

Unk

The Moviequill said...

escalating tension is what we need, but it's not what THEY want unfortunately. the SUITS (and by suits I mean, assistants and $50/script readers) want to get to the action NOW! NOW! NOW! page 1 baby... but not every movie is a frigging action tentpole but they carry that mentality. everything is too "fast" today. I guess the classic types of movies are going to have to be self-financed or be pet projects in order to get out, which is disheartening

Susan P. said...

I love film noire. Tension there is created from problematic situations between people with stakes being high and major threats to well being on the brink. Add hints and shadows, cuts, unexpected intrusions and potential threats to those intrusions (e.g. will the elderly lady and her husband be shot?) or from those. There are potentials for discovery and/or that the bad deed may be thwarted or may be escalated. There is a rocking motion between the two at times.

In learning screenwriting I find tension hard to generate because I think in terms of harsh immediacy. I come back to the elderly lady being simple blown away. That was the shift from noire - into suburban harsh immediacy I think.

Mystery Man said...

Scott - delayed gratification. I love it!

JJ - I'm writing one to share on TS, which will is ALL about tension, baby!

gabb - No one's seen it. It's one of his unproduced scripts. It's a brilliant film... in my head. Hehehe... That's very true, though, that the audience is in on an important piece of info that the character's don't know. Tension really is about toying with the emotions of the audience.

Emily - Nothing wrong with a Zombie spec. But the key is tension, I think. Nicholl might be a little too uppercrust for zombies, but you never know...

Matt - Rhythm and release, I love it! That's very true, and it takes time and experience to get the feel for it. You think you have the feel just because you've seen a lot of films but it's quite a different matter when you write your own stories. BTW, the point about Clarice meeting Lecter was spot on. Great!

Dix - I've actually been meaning to see it because I've heard so many bad things about it.

terraling - Yes, MYSTERY! I have a thing for mystery, of course, but your point about the details is perfect. Love Bill Martel.

Unk - I love it! I was thinking along the lines of "a goal that's on the brink of being shattered," but it doesn't fit all the variables of tension. Yours is much better.

moviequill - That's true, although if it's done really, really well, you may not get very many complaints. But, this is something worth fighting for.

Susan - I love film noirs! Escalating tension, baby, that's it! On "In learning screenwriting I find tension hard to generate because I think in terms of harsh immediacy", I think many, many people are that way.


Ya know, in hindsight, I think I overpraised Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards despite its flaws only because I was thrilled to see lots tension because it feels so rare. He was ALL about tension, and I appreciated the effort.

-MM

terraling said...

UNK

Really like your formula, a lot, though it rankles with what's left of the mathematician in me that it's not very algebraic.

Forgive the presumption but I rewrote it as:

(Hope + Fear) * Uncertainty = Tension

The bigger the upside and the bigger the downside and the greater the uncertainty about which way up the penny is going to drop the higher the tension.

Changing uncertainty creates the rhythm and release, and doubtless a few switches of the hopes and fears, too.

Unk said...

terraling,

Any way you can get it to work or make sense to YOU, certainly works for me.

I avoided math like the plague.

Unk

Matt Spira said...

Great title to this post.

While I like the equation (Hope + Fear) * Uncertainty = tension, for me, tension is created when 1) there are genuine stakes, 2) I understand what those stakes mean to the character(s) in question, and 3) I genuinely care or am legitimately curious about the outcome, but am uncertain about what that outcome is going to be.

In terms of writing "tension" into scripts, I think it's important to recognize that it's almost a "supra-segmental" structural function of the use of time and manipulation/revelation of details in a holistic way.

-Matt

Susan P. said...

Matt, this is a mouthful to an emerging writer! Care to give an example and/or further explanation?

"it's almost a "supra-segmental" structural function of the use of time and manipulation/revelation of details in a holistic "

Matt Spira said...

On re-read, it is a mouthful isn't it? Sorry.

When we use oral language, we speak in groups of syllables that join together to form words and utterances.

Suprasegmentals are the elements of speech that connect together the groups of syllables we utter into meaning. So, for example, consider how stress serves to change the meaning of the following sentence:

HE walked to the store.
He WALKED to the store.
He walked to the STORE.

So, applying the analogy of syllables and suprasegmentals to screenwriting, individual scenes are syllables and things like structure are the suprasegmentals.

Creating, sustaining and building tension are suprasegmental functions as well in that you really have to look at the whole of the story, and at how individual details (and timing of when they are revealed) impact that whole.

For me, you start with clear stakes, sustain rising tension until you reach a satisfying conclusion. (A comment I suppose applies to more than just screenwriting. ;)

I hope this is a clearer articulation of the point I was trying to make.

-Matt

aldentre said...

I can echo the distaste for using camera angles and 'we', but how would you get around using them when the camera is moving as much as it is, and when that movement is so necessary? How would you achieve that climbing element which works so well here?

RHP said...

Fantastic article! Thank you.

Well, I suppose this is stating the obvious, but to me tension in broad terms is all about THE QUESTION. What is the man doing with the mums? Who or what is he listening to? And then later... Will they escape or will they be caught?

So there are these scene-specific questions and then there are the broader ones such as... Who is Keyser Soze? (The Usual Suspects... doubt anyone required this tip).

As a viewer, I always want to have questions; and as each question is answered I want new ones to replace the old. Otherwise I might fall asleep and spill my Dr. Pepper on my lap. But anyway, that's my two cents.

Thanks again for all of the articles. They're really great.

Susan P. said...

Thanks for the explanation Matt. I understand now. :)

aldentre, I won't answer your question as such BUT, I really dislike seeing camera angles written into a script. I read a short film script last night and it had camera directions as well as non-visual descriptions and they bothered me. Why? Largely because the directions/descriptions were taking us out of the protag's view and they all seemed like some esoteric contrivance. I felt the writer was 'trying' to be clever as opposed to the script just being so.

I would have thought one just listed what is being seen BUT, I admit that in the Hitchcock example offered by MM even a listing takes us out of the protag's view. Hmmmm

Christian M. Howell said...

Howdy MM,
Provocative post to say the least. I've been thinking about it for days now. I guess I have to yield to UNKs brilliant analysis of the DEFINITION of tension.

I guess though that you have to look from both sides as a writer. On the one hand you want the audience to feel involved with superior position but you also want genuine danger of failure for your protag.

Tension can also mean different things in different genres. Like a drama about a working mother may have her rushing across town to pick up her child, trying to beat the close of the school gates and more pressure to give up custody. There's an accident; her cell phone dies; it's a early dismissal day; a PI working for her ex is also on the way; she has to go to the bathroom, etc.

Amazingly that's a similar course to Pursuit of Happyness.

I'm working on an action film where several large set pieces involve stopping different groups of terrorists from carrying out a mission.

A great action movie example is HEAT, though DeNiro et al are really the antags. The whole end of the movie flip-flops tension as Pacino tries to catch them before they blow town.

Horror movie tension uses mostly audience superiority since it's always a matter of life and death rather than capture or loss.

An example is where the protag is trapped in a room with many doors and we know where the monster is but they have to use clues to not open the wrong one. You can have two with different answers and they reach for the wrong door but stop short. But there's a heat sensor that trips and the door springs open. There are weapons in the monster room but someone may have to sacrifice himself.

Wow, can I copyright an example of tension for a story? I got dibs.

Christian M. Howell said...

Oh yeah, I forgot about camera direction. There are lots of ways to call attention to something to appear on-screen. To use the Hitchcock text as an example.

EXT.STREET - NIGHT
A Humber Hawk sits on the side of the road deflecting raindrops...

A man sits inside nearly obscured by the reflection of a streetlight...

In his hand is a bunch of mums wrapped neatly...

A sound causes him to move his ear closer to them. His arm rests on the car door, the flowers obscure his face from the street...

Beside the car a tower rises in the dark behind a dark stone wall...
Searchlights pierce the night and sign becomes visible, "Hammersmith Hospital."

EXT. COURTYARD - SAME
The shadows hide an institutionally-garbed man huddling beside a wall, a device in his hand.

PRISONER
I’m here… hurry on now… can you hear? I said, I’m here.

MAN IN CAR
That’s right then, I’m here. You’ll be fine… stay calm.





Wow, that was fun. I have some work to finish but I may complete the scene.

aldentre said...

Well, certainly it's easy to eliminate the camera directions in simple shots.

You failed to conceive an example, though, that captures a moving camera which traverses a wall.

Susan P. said...

So, essentially a list. :) Thanks Christian; it's useful to see the example. I would have said this:

Beside the car a tower rises in the dark behind a dark stone wall...

As this however...

A tall tower sits behind the wall. From the top a searchlight pierces the darkness momentarily illuminating a sign, "Hammersmith Hospital." [I would have mentioned that the car was next to the wall in the first line]. Without looking back at MM's narrative I 'think' the hospital was next door also?? Perhaps not. The word 'tall' may also be unnecessary given the overall description.

Interesting how we view such things.

Now we wait for the moving visual/camera example. :)

Christian M. Howell said...

aldentre,
I guess for movement along the wall you would say,

the wall is made of rough hewn stone, cracks in the mortar rise up to the top

I'd probably forego that much detail to slowly reveal where we are rather than an exact look. That's another thing writers should avoid; too much detail. Let the location and production people concentrate on the specifics.

Most "gurus" and such will say to use descriptive adjectives rather than a rundown, unless it's necessary (some object becomes important later).

Like you could say,
the room is reminiscent of a war zone
the building is basically an unkempt crack house

I would actually go as far as to say most description is for the set designers and not the readers. Most say they don't read them anyway. IF there's something specific you want to come to attention you can CAP it so the above would be

beside the car a TOWER rises in the dark behind a stone WALL...
SEARCHLIGHTS pierce the night...

Another thing to remember is that readers can visualize pretty well and have seen it all. Let your imagination run wild with descriptive adjectives. But just be as sparse as possible.

Anyway, I should be finishing a script someone is waiting for, so..

Keep writing as writing is the revealing of the soul.

Dave Shepherd said...

Want tension? Watch No Country for Old Men.

My definition is the same as Unk's, and I think what a lot of people miss is the uncertainty aspect.

Think about the audience -- and think about what is a LEGITIMATE threat to them.

Putting Spider-man's life in the 1st act isn't a legitimate threat (same with any protagonist).

They're going to survive. There's only one movie I can think of where the person who's arguably the protagonist doesn't survive (and it's Hitchcock).

So we know we can't put Spider-man's life in doubt. He's not going to die. No way.

Alright, what can we put in doubt?

Innocent lives? You betcha. Mary Jane -- sure, it's possible she might not make it. The city? Yeah.

The loss of the protagonist's life usually isn't a legitimate threat -- but the damage inflicted on him and those around him is a threat.

Take The Dark Knight.

Batman's life is never really in doubt... we're pretty damn sure he's going to survive. So -- most of the tension isn't about his external, physical life. The tension is focused on those around him and his internal life.

His morals, his code of honor? Fair game -- there's a real danger he could lose both of those.

Rachel? It's a dark movie, sure, I'll buy that she could lose her life.

Commisioner Gordon? Eh... I could see it.

Harvey Dent? Yeah, he could definitely die at some point.

Innocent people on a boat with an explosive? Oh you better believe I think they can die.

In The Dark Knight the tension is very rarely on Batman's physical life... his survival isn't really in doubt. The survival of his principles, the survival of those around him, is.

So when you're writing, think: What could my protagonist legitimately stand to lose? Morals? Friends? Family? His life?

The threat has to be legitimate. That's where uncertainty comes from.

terraling said...

Very good comment Dave.

Mystery Man said...

I love the comments! Thanks, guys.

No one's mentioned this, but it most scenes/sequences with tension, isn't there usually a time element involved? You have so much time before a bomb goes off. In Dark Knight, you had the countdown to midnight on those two ferries. In Alien 1 & 2, you had the countdown to the explosion of... whatever. In the example, there was the time element of the ladder going over the wall before the prisoner gets caught.

Time's usually a big factor, isn't it? How would that fit into Unk or Terraling's the equations? Or does it?

-MM

Susan P. said...

Unk said he hates math. :)

I guess by default "uncertainly" of itself implies a time frame as does any "vs" scenario. Both of these tend to beg the question of 'when' or 'how long'. This said, they do not imply a TIGHT time frame or a necessary 'racing against clock'.

No offence intended towards terraling but unless one knows those signs then the meaning is allusive.

So, Unk's was:

HOPE vs. FEAR = UNCERTAINTY = TENSION

To add the time dimension easily I guess it may be:

HOPE vs FEAR + TIGHT TIME FRAME = TENSION

Not sure this needs UNCERTAINTY.

Spanish Prisoner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Spanish Prisoner said...

We shouldn't mix up tension with suspense. They work very similar.

Tension is for example the what happened in the beginning of Cliffhanger where Stallone holds that woman's hand and she's slipping slowly.

Suspense is like someone already mentioned: Bomb in a suitcase unter a table.

An example of suspense and tension is the scene in Carrie at the prom where Amy Irving spots the kettle above Sissy Spacek.

Tension: You know it's no way around it. It's going to happen. And it's horrible.

Suspense: You are not certain to what's going to happen next. But something has to happen otherwise it will end horrible.

Susan P. said...

Good point spanish prisoner.

Tom Lyle said...

Old stuff, I know, but I have to comment.

I've been an artist and writer of comic books for many years. SPIDER-MAN, ROBIN, WARLOCK and more. I've drawn them. I've written them.

Not all are good, but they had tension and were fun and I tried for character exposition.

I'm teaching "Sequential Art" at SCAD in Savannah to college students and I've noticed the same problem with my students in the topic of your discussion here.

They have no idea how to have tension in a story.

Their stories are endless action scenes loosely tied together (many times, not even tied together) with crappy, cardboard characters.

I've come to a conclusion based on numerous conversations that two problems exist which have brought this EMERGENCY to a head:

1) Video games have this kind of storytelling at their core and these pieces of crap have been a huge influence on what my students think makes a story.

2) Comics and movies are feeding this trend by producing an overwhelming quantity of cardboard characters in stretched-out-to-the-point-of-boredom "stories" that offer no tension or conflict.

No one seems to understand that their protagonist should be defined by how they react to the obstacles in the way of their goal.

No one.

No one seems to know how to drive you mad by getting close to a revelation and then moving on with the story, keeping you panting and waiting for "that moment".

It's sad, but I truly blame video games for the most part for this state of affairs.

LET'S KEEP SCREAMING ABOUT IT SO THAT THIS CHANGES!!

Thanks for your time and your posts.

Tom Lyle
Savannsh College of Art and Design

Mystery Man said...

Loved your comments, Tom. Couldn't agree more.

-MM

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