Creating Tension by Making Monsters

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In our last post, we spoke somewhat briefly about tension. I gave you the Hitchcock example of a bomb under the table to clarify the difference between surprise and tension. However, I feel like we should give tension a little more time. Tension is so important for any story teller to keep their audience interested that it needs a post all it’s own without those meddlesome cops hanging around. We Novel Noobs have to have a good grasp of what exactly tension is and how to deploy it.

So guess what? In order for us to really understand tension, Universal Studios has granted us a multimillion dollar budget to create our very own monster movie! Okay, you got me. They actually never retuned my calls and when I tried to walk in and hand them my resume, some big security guard just tossed me back out on my rump. But hey we’re writers. We get to make crap up every day. That’s the perks of the job.

So imagine we have the budget and means to make our very own monster movie.  The first question to ask is what are your favorite monster movies? Do you know why?

I bet that whatever movie you chose, you didn’t see the monster until the very end. Am I right? Why do you think that is? I’ll tell ya why, Tension!

Okay well it’s actually a Tension and Mystery team up, just like with the cops. While that’s all well and good and those two do make a pretty damn good team, we don’t need Mystery for our movie. Mystery can go take a coffee break. We want tension, pure utter tension.

How are we going to do that? We’ll show our monster from the very beginning. Maybe it will be a mutated lizard like Godzilla, or an undead giant like Frankenstein. It doesn’t really matter. Either way well show Zombie Frankenstein rising from the grave or Mutated Godzilla becoming, well, mutated within the first few scenes of the movie if not the first scene. There the mystery is gone, see ya.

Also, do you remember when we talked about hooks a few posts back? Guess what? We just created one at the same time we created our monster. Your audience is most likely thinking “Holy Crap, how could anybody possibly see that thing a live to tell the tale?” And guess what, they’ll keep watching to find out.

Now how do we create Tension all by itself? We have our hook, but we have to develop it.

I think first we should remember that tension is a slow building process. It starts off light and becomes very heavy as the story progresses. You can have bouts of higher tension early, but you need to balance them with point of lower tension. Your audience will need a breather every now and then.

For our purposes we will drop our monster in, say, Australia.  In the next shot, we show our protagonist for the first time. She seems like a very likable person. We could root for her given the chance, but most important, she’s in Scotland. She’s far away from our monster. Tension is relatively low right now.

In the next scene, we see the monster kill some unfortunate Australian workers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We feel bad for the workers, but it’s not our Scottish Protagonist, so we’re okay. Tension is still pretty low, but we do see that this thing is definitely vicious.

Next we show our protagonist again. Perhaps she has some domestic issues to deal with. Let’s say she finds out on Facebook that her boyfriend is cheating on her. The worst part is that he is down in London.

She buys a bus ticket to London, ready to give this no good son of a bee a piece of her mind. In the background there is a TV on at the bus station. It is tuned to a news story about the dead Australian workers.

The next scene is on a ship. We slowly pan over dead and bloodied bodies. It’s seems like everybody was killed, but by what? Then we show our monster gnawing on a spare arm like a dog with a chew toy. We pan over and show a map with the destination, London. Tension is moderate now. We know the monster is getting much closer to our protag and she is certainly in no state of mind to fight it.

The next scene we show our Lead lady bust in on her now Ex boyfriend just as he’s getting ready to do the naughty with his new lady friend. For some reason his eating a banana. Who knows what the kids are into these days. Our leading lady throws things around the apartment and both the boyfriend and his muse flee the scene. Banana in hand. Our lead chases after them.

Next scene, we see our monsters tail slip into the subway.

Meanwhile, Both the girl and guy are nude and for some reason feel that they will have more privacy in the subway.  They both scamper underground and our lead follows. Tension is getting higher now. We know that she is very close to our viscous beast and her emotions are a wreck.

Screams come from around the corner that the ex and his lady just entered. A banana peel flies out into view. Then the screams are quickly silenced by a crunching sound. Our protagonist stops dead in her tracks and asks “What was that?” The monster turns the corner and our protagonist see’s it in its full glory. Tension is at its highest right now. Our audience is on the edge of its seat. We have their full attention.

The monster goes to leap at our protagonist and slips on the banana peel that the Ex left. It falls onto the train tracks and an oncoming train squashes it to the rails. As the train leaves, our protag looks down at the tracks. The monster is nothing more than road kill or… track kill. Our audience can now exhale. The tension is low once again.

Our leading lady returns home and finds a new, better boyfriend, but just as the credits are about to roll, in true monster movie fashion, we zoom in on the corpse of our beast and he blinks showing he’s not quite dead yet. We end the tension on a high note as the audience gears up for Monster movie 2: The pancaked beast!

Okay so it was a bit short, and way too comical to be a real monster movie, but you get the idea. Tension needs to always be present. It can be low, but it always has to be there. Your characters always need to be in some sort of danger no matter how far away that danger may be. The danger doesn’t always need to be measured by distance either. It could be time. Maybe the world is going to end on three years. At the beginning it’s not really a huge deal, but as that time get closer the tension increases.

It also doesn’t have to be physical death either. It could be professional death.

For instance let’s do another movie, but this one will be abbreviated.  In this movie, our lead has had an innocent affair with a coworker. Neither is married so no one is harmed. But they develop feelings for each other, it’s highly unprofessional for them to be seeing each other, but again, it’s not a huge deal.

Later we find out that the CEO hates when his employees participate in extracurricular activities. He looks at it as a blemish in himself and the company. He usually fires people on the spot for such a thing. The last one he caught was a mid-level manager and the CEO not only fired the guy, but made sure he couldn’t get a job for months. He’s now down at the Quickie Burger pulling overnight shifts.

The CEO decides to promote our leading lady to a high level position.

How about that tension? In the words of Ron Burgandy “Well, that escalated quickly!” We go from an innocent affair to what could very well possible end up in public maiming for both of our leads plus who knows what else. We are pretty much guaranteed they will have no job if they are found out. The last guy could only get a position at a Quickie Burger and he was only a mid-level guy. Just imagine what this CEO will do to the high level guys.

That’s tension. That’s what keeps our readers interested in our stories. Start it slow and increase it bit by bit and you will have a story that people won’t be able to put down!


Why Do Writers Love Cops?

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I’m sure if you’ve watched a few episodes of the TV show “Cops,” you can see that there a more than a few good stories for the officers to tell while sitting around a table at the bar. But what about the fictional cops? You know the group in any of the versions of Law and order, or CSI. What about books? Jack Reacher anyone? Just check out the NY bestsellers list I guarantee you with my having to look at it that it is at least 75% filled with books about cops.

Really, I didn’t look. I promise. Go check and see if I was right. If I had money, I would bet on it.

So why do storytellers like cops and detectives so darn much? Why are we glued to the TV whenever we make the mistake of stopping on an episode of Bones?

In one word the answer is Tension. But there’s more than that. It’s also Mystery. You usually don’t know who the killer is. In the rare instances that you do, you’re always not sure how the good guys could possibly round ‘em up. Every case is a natural unraveling of clues until the killer is found.

Andrew Stanton, a storyteller for Pixar gave a speech at TED Talks where he said “The audience wants to work for their meal. They want 2+2. They don’t want 4.” It’s absolutely true. We love to make the connections on our own.

Imagine your favorite cop story but instead of opening on a murder, the first few lines are “This person did this crime and this is how we caught him/her.” That totally kills it doesn’t it? There’s no drama there. You might as well find a real police report to read. That, my friends, is why we need mystery. We need to fear the unknown. However, cops don’t just do mystery well; they also do tension a great justice. (Pun was totally intended.)

Tension can go hand and hand with mystery. It doesn’t have to, but it can. It’s cool like that.

What really is tension though? Is it Surprise? Is it when George R.R. Martin suddenly kills off your favorite Stark and you’re left reeling for the next few chapters of the book? The keyword in that last sentence is “suddenly.” Tension doesn’t happen suddenly. It builds slowly.

The answer that really clarified tension and surprise amd more importantly, the difference between the two for me once and for all, is one I read from Alfred Hitchcock.

“There is a distinct difference between suspense(tension) and surprise and yet many

pictures continually confuse the two, I’ll explain what I mean. We are now having

a innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table

between us. Nothing happens and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an

explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an

absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense

situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably

because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the

bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The

public can see that it is quarter to one. In these conditions the same innocuous

conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen, “You shouldn’t be

talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to


Do you understand the difference now? In one instance you are surprised when the bomb goes off; just like the killing of a Stark. But the other instance you know that it is there. This leaves you hanging on every word the characters are saying wondering if it will be their last. That is tension.

That’s what cops do so well. They combine tension and mystery not to mention the occasional bout of action to keep us on the edge of our seats. That’s why writers love cops. That’s why we all love cops. If you ever doubt me just check out the most watched TV shows, bestselling novels or what’s playing at the box office. I’m sure you’ll see more than a few men and women in uniform.