HOW TO ADD TENSION TO A SCREENPLAY
Several techniques have been used over the years to add tension to a story but is one technique better than the other? Should you limit the time in the story or let the audience in on the secret? I believe there is a best way but I also believe tension isn’t always needed. So, before you go adding tension to your story, ask yourself, do I need to add tension?
If something doesn’t serve your story then there is no reason to add it just for the sake of doing so. Let things be as they are. Let the story breathe a little bit. Not everything has to be a fast paced, tension and drama packed shit show. Feel the flow of your story and ride the wave. You’ll know what feels right and that’s the direction you should go.
We’ve all seen movies with a lot of tension and movies with little to none. But one thing to keep in mind is, each person is different. A simple car chase can put an audience on the edge of their seats, yet there I sit, uninterested, chomping on my popcorn. It just does nothing for me. The point I’m trying to make is, do what YOU feel is best. Always write the movie YOU want to see. Now, let’s take a look at an example of how to add tension. The best way to add tension. Through opposites, secrets and lies.
Quentin Tarantino is masterful at adding tension to a scene. He doesn’t need to do it with a car chase, a bomb or a gun. He simply uses people as they are and places them in situations they aren’t comfortable with. He knows how to play the game of opposites and he plays it well.
Let’s look at the opening scene of Inglorious Bastards. A french gentleman is working outside his home with his daughters. That’s when the Nazi’s begin to drive towards his home. Tension already. Everyone know’s Nazi’s are bad so we are already anticipating this to go awry. He has the audience hooked.
Christoph Waltz enters the home and a conversation ensues. We are introduced to his character and given the knowledge that he is hunting Jews. Obviously, we already expected this so it doesn’t do much for us. Furthering the conversation, he inquires about the french gentleman's Jewish neighbors, to which he denies knowing their whereabouts or when they left. This is when Tarantino ups the tension.
Letting the audience in on the lie, he reveals the Jews hiding under the floorboards of the country home. Damn...The heart starts racing. We know this situation isn’t good. Not only did the french homeowner lie, he let us in on it and now we feel as though we’re lying too. Riddled with anticipation, we can’t wait to see what happens. This is tension at its height, but then Quentin does something unexpected. He flips it on it’s head.
Christoph Waltz catches us in the lie. He informs everyone (the audience) that he is aware of the people hiding under the floor of the home. Now, this should break the tension and let us off the hook, but it doesn’t. Why? Because Christoph let us in on his own lie. He finds out that the Jews under the floorboards don’t speak English, which he was speaking when he let us in on the secret. Now, we’re lying to the poor people under the floor. Raise that tension bar a little higher.
By revealing the secret, we are now overly anxious to see what happens. We know this isn’t going to go well and of course it doesn’t. But, it’s not over yet. Quentin sets us all up for a little more to happen later in the story. He let’s a character get away. A character who will have a run in with Christoph later in the story, letting us be a part of yet another lie. Like I said, masterful.
To me, the most effective way to add tension to any scene is to let your audience in on a lie and simply play the game of opposites. If you write a movie about an Angel, place him/her undercover(the lie) in the depths of hell(the opposite) with the looming prospect of death, if he/she is caught. Instant tension. If you write a movie about a man/woman terrified of the water, place them in a boat, stranded in the ocean.
This is a simple and very effective technique that not only adds tension to your story, it keeps your audience engaged and guessing. Play the game of opposites with a few secrets sprinkled throughout and you’ll win every time.