So what is tension? It’s a question. “Will this happen or won’t it?” “Will something different happen?” Every single scene requires some kind of tension in order to keep the audience interested, and every story needs an overall tension that remains (preferably) unresolved until after the climax, or even until the credits roll.
The best way to understand tension (and equally important, to understand tension-killers) is to think of it as a game. There is something your protagonist wants, and something is in their way. The game (the tension) is them trying to get what they want and dealing with all the obstacles in their way in order to get it. And the game should not be over until the story is over.
Now here’s where some stories miss the mark. A game is only a game as long as there is a chance that you can win, and a chance that you can lose. If there is no chance of winning, then you check out. If there is no chance of losing, then there’s no excitement. The tension only exists as long as the Protagonist has both a chance of winning and a chance of losing. And here’s the thing, it’s not about what you the writer know (because you already know what happens), it’s about how the audience perceives things. Even though you already know whether the hero wins or loses, it should still be able to go either way in the audience’s mind.
This is why it is not a good idea to make either heroes or villains with god-like powers (unless the opposing forces have something of equal power or know the character’s weaknesses). Because if the hero has infinite power and the villains are all weak, then in the audience’s mind there is no chance of the hero losing. Game over. And if the villain has god-like power and the protagonists are just normal people, then in the audience’s mind they have no chance of surviving. Game over. This is why Superman needs Kryptonite in order to stay interesting.
Audiences generally assume that the protagonists will win, even when the odds are stacked “impossibly” against them. Because that’s how the majority of stories go. But here’s the thing – when the writer creates a situation where the audience knows, logically, that there is no possible way for the hero to win, the audience at that point concludes that the story can only go one of two ways. Either the hero loses, logically, or the writer is going to make up something random and stupid that changes the situation so that the hero wins anyway. I have seen this happen many times, where writers made their villains way too powerful, and then had to make up some ridiculous weakness so that the hero still wins. Audiences don’t like that. And if you create a situation where there is no logical way that the hero can possibly win, you will find that audiences lose interest because they know that either things won’t go the way they want, or things will go the way they want but only for ridiculous reasons. If those are the only two possibilities then audiences lose interest.
My next post will discuss how to make sure each element in your story has the right kind of significance for the right reasons, and whether your hero is really a hero or just a bystander.