Tension is everywhere, and there are about a gazillion ways it shows up in the things we read and watch. Some of my favorite movies have such tense moments in them that it’s physically painful. There’s this part in While You Were Sleeping that is so embarrassing for Sandra Bullock’s character I spend the five minutes leading up to it with my knees to my chest and my hands over my mouth.
Then there’s the tension in books. Oh, man, book tension is the worst. For me, seeing tension in a movie is painful, but you can often see it coming before anything happens. Movie tension leans more toward the “Oh, please, God, don’t open the door…don’t…no…don’t open it!” side of the spectrum, and book tension leans to the “WHAT?! HOLY CRAP WHAT JUST HAPPENED?! WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN??” side.
It’s a subtle difference, where the line is drawn between seeing it about to happen versus suddenly realizing it’s happening around you. Of course there are a multitude of exceptions – books that use lead-up tension and movies that suddenly surround you with immediate tension. I love tension of all kinds, and it’s often what drives me through to the end of the book. Even predictable books are enjoyable if the author knows how to wield tension.
Here are a few examples: Everyone knows that Charles Xavier ends up paralyzed, that Rapunzel’s long hair gets cut short, and that Westley is the Dread Pirate Roberts. Yet we still let the tension get to us. Why? We love it! It’s like an adrenaline rush. The tension is a thrill, and it fills us with the feeling of the story.
Take the Harry Potter books, for instance. I’m assuming everyone here has read them (if not, mild spoiler alert!). I read all the books in one go, so I can’t separate any of the books from the entire storyline, but I do remember a certain rhythm that repeated in each book. JK Rowling is a certainly a genius. But Harry Potter books can be counted on to begin in the summer, feature a holiday celebration, and end at the finish of the school year. It’s kind of like the original Pokémon episodes* – Ash and his friends find a problem no adult can fix, Team Rocket shows up to make things worse, and Pikachu saves the day.
It’s the tension in each story that pulls us from the beginning to the end (not to mention glorious writing on Rowling’s part). Even though we are pretty certain of the impending outcome, we have to read to the end and we need to watch all the way to the credits. Without story tension, readers and movie-goers have almost nothing to connect to. You might have the most fascinating character on the planet, but if we aren’t worried about the situation they’re in, none of that complexity matters.
What are some of your favorite tense story moments from books or movies?
Michelle lives in Colorado, which is disappointingly empty of snow, and now that she is a grown-up she gets excited about silly things like fancy puppy-proof trashcans, wall-mountable paper towel holders, and free kitchen utensils.
*I haven’t watched any Pokémon since my high school days, so I have no idea if the stories are still laid out like this…I’d bet they are, though. Anyone know?