The Craft of Screenwriting : Suspense and Tension

Suspense and Tension

Suspense and tension in your stories. Almost every scene in a screenplay or novel should create tension and suspense. It doesn’t matter if you are writing a short story, novel or screenplay; you must create a sense of suspense. You need suspense and tension in all types of stories. Romance, Comedy, Action, Adventure, Drama, Mystery and Horror; all need suspense and tension to keep the audience connected and involved with your story.
Tension is created when the audience or reader hopes or fears that something will happen to the characters.

Will the lovers get together?
Will the bomb in the mail box kill the hero?
Will the team of misfits win the state championship against all odds?

In a love story you have the sexual tension and the suspense of “will they get to together?” or “Will she find out about his affair?” “Will they stay together? And so on. If the audience is given the outcome early, then there is no need to continue reading or watching the story. We do not want the would be lovers to get together too quickly, we want them to clash at first, find common ground, make mistakes and work for the goal. If they do hook up early in the story then we expect trails and tribulation of the relationship and a break up and then the couple working to get back together.

It is the not knowing if the first date will be a magical moment or a train wreck that keeps us watching. Wondering if the ex-girlfriend’s revenge plot will succeed or not, has us turning pages. The anticipation of that first kiss has the audience hoping that it will happen, but fearing that it won’t.

Comedy is based on tension and suspense as well. Even in a simple joke you have the setup, the complication and the pay off. We know something funny is coming, but it is the anticipation, the suspense, the tension that keeps us listening. Even when we think we’ve heard this one before; we still wait for the payoff, anticipating that the punch line may be new.

Comedy movies set up the audience to anticipate moments that will create laughter. Misinformation, sight gags, mistaken identities or being in the wrong place at the wrong time are just a few of the techniques that are used to create anticipation, tension and suspense for the audience. We know the Kevin James’s Paul Blart character is going to look foolish somehow, we anticipate that. We fear he will find himself in a situation where he will be humiliated once again, we hope he will somehow not screw up his plan, this suspense keeps us watching.

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