17.33: Building Tension
Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Maurice Broaddus, and Howard Tayler
Tension! In this episode we discuss the ways dialog can build and/or maintain tension, especially when placed in context with the rest of the scene.
Liner Notes: A great article about tension for those who (like Howard) may need a solid working definition –Toward a general psychological model of tension and suspense
Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.
Homework: Pick a moral compromise, and have a character explain why they made a questionable choice. Write four versions of the scene – the character explains it to a child, to their parent, to a law enforcement officer, and to an old friend.
Thing of the week: Meru, by S.B. Divya.
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Key points: Tension supercharges dialogue. A simple breakfast order, with a bomb under the table, becomes tense, loaded with expectations. What are the stakes? Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Break stability, lose control, and then build and stretch. Every line can be a cusp/decision/choice point.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Dialogue Masterclass Episode Six, Building Tension.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Maurice] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And… Dun, dun, dun, dun…
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Howard] I thought that joke would play better than it did.
[Mary Robinette] Thank you, Howard.
[Dan] I’m just going to pretend like it was an introduction to me, and you were actually saying, “Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan.”
[Dan] Okay. So, we talked about conflict last time. Let’s talk about tension this time. Dialogue in tension. Maurice, why do we want tension in our dialogue?
[Maurice] Well, tension is that thing… It both holds it together and then charges it to push it forward. So, tension in a lot of ways just sort of supercharges dialogue. One of the things I think about is there’s a scene… I’m about to date myself. Alfred Hitchcock movie. I think it was called Saboteur where you have these two people having a mundane conversation. They’re just sitting around in a café, and they’re ordering breakfast. It’s just a really mundane conversation, trying to figure out their coffee order and everything. But then the camera pans down and there’s a bomb underneath the table. The bomb’s on a timer. It is getting close to detonation. Then the camera pans back up. So you have these two characters that are still just trying to figure out what they’re going to order for breakfast. But now suddenly this moment has been supercharged with tension and expectations and wanting to see what’s happening next.
[Dan] Yeah. That’s one of my favorite principles of writing. It is so important when you’re doing this that you make sure to establish what those stakes are. Because prior to seeing the bomb, that was just a boring conversation about breakfast. After seeing the bomb, everything changes. I have a horror class that I teach, how to scare people, how to build suspense. I show clips of movies. I showed a clip from the beach scene from Jaws where the kids are out playing in the water, and there’s like a hundred misdirections where you think there’s a shark, but it’s not actually a shark. I showed this to a group of kids at a teen writers conference, and I forgot to set it up. They’d never seen Jaws, they didn’t know what this was about. So they didn’t know there was a shark. They didn’t know that everything they were watching were misdirections about why is this person screaming? Why can’t they find the dog? All of these little things. So they were bored to tears watching this scene. Because they didn’t have any context, they didn’t know what the stakes were. So if you want to build that tension, you have to tell the reader what could go wrong. Then don’t let it go wrong for a while.
[Howard] Yeah. The… It’s difficult to describe what tension is. In music, one of my instructors described it as what he called the law of the halfstep. Which was when you have a chord that is… Where one note is a halfstep off from resolving into the major key, the tonic of the piece. Everybody can hear that and everybody’s like, “Okay. It’s about to resolve. Go ahead and resolve.” It’s a musical tension. He went on to describe the works of Richard Wagner and saying he keeps using this law of the halfstep, but every time we resolve the halfstep, we introduce a new note that is a halfstep off from a new resolution. So Wagner is tiring to listen to for some people, because the tension is unrelating… er, unrelenting. It never resolves. Dean Koontz wrote a book called Intensity, which functions that way for me. There were these little resolutions at every step, but with each resolution, there was a new twist that maintains the tension. Very difficult. Very difficult to read. So, circling back around, what is tension? In fiction? What is tension in our writing? I think it’s best described in terms of like waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for a thing to resolve so that I can let out this breath.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, it’s about an expectation that… As you say, waiting for the other shoe to drop. When we talk about what’s at stake, the reason that that’s important is because it creates one end of that tension. If you think about it as something that you are stretching a line… An elastic line between two things, you need one end of it to be the thing that’s at stake, like a literal stake. You could maybe think of it that way. Then the other thing is all of the things that are drawing that out, that are pulling it away from that thing that’s at stake.
[Dan] So, as this relates to dialogue, specifically. We know why tension’s important. How do we draw out that thing, how do we draw it out, how do we stretch it when it’s dialogue without it just being dull?
[Howard] Oh, go ahead, Maurice.
[Maurice] Oh… Uh… Let me give you a link to this article. We’ll put it in the liner notes. But it’s called Toward a general psychological model of tension and suspense, which is as amazing a read as you imagine it will be. But in that… So I found that a really useful article for me personally because, so, for one, it defines tension as “a diffuse general state of anticipation.” So there’s that whole idea of like waiting for the shoe to drop. Then suspense as the specific anticipation between clearly opposed outcomes. Like, whether or not this bomb is going to explode. Right? So the whole article breaks down this whole idea of what does it mean to hold tension, what does it mean to hold suspense. It’s sort of like lays out this process of, one, stability gets broken. Two, there’s this loss of control. Then, three, which is the key thing you were just talking about, Dan, is the whole build and stretch. I think we’ve actually already touched upon the first two items there, the whole stability gets broken. Stability is just us setting the scene, and then it gets broken by you have these characters in collision with opposing agendas and what for. Then there’s this whole idea of loss of control. That’s the idea of, all right, let’s show you the bomb, let’s show you what’s at stake. So now we have that loss of control. But the build and stretch… When I think about build and stretch, I think about the movie Inglorious Bastards. It’s a Quentin Tarantino movie. There’s a scene in there which I always refer back to. It’s sort of like a master class on tension. A master class on that build and stretch idea. Right? Because you have your hero… It takes place in World War II and our heroes are in a German… I think a canteen. But anyway, they’re surrounded by all…
[Howard] They’re in like a downstairs tavern. That’s the scene you’re talking about, right?
[Maurice] Yeah, yeah. That’s the one. So you have this German officer who is aware that there is a spy among them. He’s trying to ferret out which one is the spy. So this whole scene is everybody trying to retain their cover, act like they belong, knowing that one slip up… And this whole scene ends bloodily, we’ll say.
[Maurice] Spoilers. It ends bloodily. But the scene goes on for almost 20 minutes. Almost 20 minutes. By minute 12, you almost feel tension as a character sitting next to you. Right? Because he’s done a pretty masterful job of just using dialogue, question after question, or comment after comment… Because it doesn’t have to be questions, it’s just… Literally each line of dialogue is a potential trap. Everybody understands one slip up and we’re dead.
[Mary Robinette] So the potential trap… I want to drill into that and talk about cusp points. Because every line of dialogue can be a cusp point. For instance, we can continue talking about that now, or we could pause for the book of the week.
[Dan] That’s a good idea. It’s your book of the week this week.
[Mary Robinette] That’s right. So the book of the week for me this week is Meru by S. B. Divya. This is a far future science fiction novel. It’s set in a point at which humans have really borked the Earth, and the next evolution of humanity, called alloys, are kind of keeping things going and preserving original humans as an important species. In much the same way they are preserving elephants. What’s… What it’s… Interesting is that… I mean, it’s really quite compelling. But one of the things that’s interesting for me about it is that the… There’s parent-child conflict in it that is also not just parent and child but the parents of this child are alloys and they’re raising a human child. So it’s both the parental feeling, but there’s also these other aspects of it, of… Where it touches on colonialization, it touches on what it means to be a dominant species, and how, in many ways, like touches on some animal rights things. But never, like, being explicitly about that, because it’s also just this really fun and now we’re going to go explore a new planet. So it’s got so much intriguing world building, good interesting conversations, and… I’m just… I’m enjoying the heck out of it. So this is Meru by S. B. Divya.
[Dan] Cool. That sounds great.
[Mary Robinette] So. Okay, back to my cusp points.
[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that we’re talking about when we’re talking about these… This tension, and the scene that Maurice was describing, is that when you’re in a dialogue, when you’re in conversation with someone, in many ways, every line that is spoken represents a cusp point, a decision point, a choice point. When we talk about knowing your character’s agenda, people come into things with more than one agenda and often a conversation can expose and open up a whole new agenda. You’ve had these conversations where someone says something and like five different possible responses collide in your head at once. The reason they collide is each of them could spin the conversation in a different way. So one of the things that you can do with the… To ramp that tension up is to make us aware of… The thing that’s happening with the scene that Maurice describes is that each one of those innocuous questions could be the question that spins the conversation into danger. You can… That’s something that you can play with as a deliberate tool is to look at what cusp points are represented by each line of dialogue. Like, what is the other thing that your character could have said that would have made things worse, and what is the thing that they could say that would make things better. What is the thing that will just change the conversation, change the topic, the tenor? These are things that can add tension if you kind of make the reader aware that this exists.
[Dan] That’s really cool. I don’t have a follow-up, sorry. I’m just [garbled]
[Dan] Wow. That’s actually really fascinating.
[Howard] Well, one of the things that’s… A common trope, we see it a lot. When the tension can be resolved by one person telling the other person the thing that they’re planning to tell them, and the two people are together, and instead of telling them, they say, “We don’t have time for that right now. Follow me!” Eee, no! You actually could have just said, “I committed the murder. Sorry. My bad.”
[Howard] “Now, follow me, we’re running from the cops.” Or whatever. The artificial maintenance of tension really bugs me. If you need to do something like that, if you’ve reached a point where the energy state of the conversation is just going to collapse now. It’s just going to happen. You either need to backup and write these characters apart so they’re not having the conversation yet, or you need to interrupt them with something that neither of them get a say in in order to prevent the conversation from continuing.
[Dan] I would caution you as a rider on that principle that if you find yourself doing this type of thing frequently, mix it up. Don’t have someone kick down the door and interrupt the conversation every single time. Use different methods of delaying that resolution and of drawing out the tension. Because otherwise it just becomes a parody of itself.
[Howard] Well, the master class version of this is the person who has the information needs to not be motivated to share it yet for a really good reason.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yes. That can’t just be the authorial intention of I need them to not share this yet.
[Mary Robinette] Frequently, when characters do share information, it can lead to much more interesting conversations that are still filled with tension. Like one of the things that I’m super enjoying right now is on TicTac… Tiktok, Natalie Hernandez… Natalie Hernandez author is the Tiktok handle, has been doing romance tropes in real life. Where the… She does both sides of a dialogue in which one side is like, “Stay calm. Don’t…” “You just kidnapped me.” “No no no no no. But stay calm.” Why would… Like, shatters every piece of the way these conversations normally go. Because one side is trying to have the standard romance trope conversation, and the other is like, no, this is the kind of communication that you would have if you were a healthy adult, and I will absolutely not have anything to do with you because you are not a healthy adult. And you…
[Mary Robinette] I just… I love it because part of the… And the reason it… I think it… I brought it up here is because part of the tension describes from the thwarted expectations.
[Dan] Yes. Let’s take this to our homework for the week, which is kind of a version of this. I want you to write a difficult conversation. Someone, as Howard said, has information they are motivated not to share. An example could be that they have made an incredibly questionable choice, some kind of deep moral compromise, and they don’t want to tell what they’ve done. But I want you to write for versions of this. They have this conversation with a child. They have this conversation with one of their own parents. They have this conversation with a police officer. And they have this conversation with an old, good friend. See how that changes the tension and the ways that you build that tension in the scene. This is Writing Excuses, you are out of excuses. Now go write.