Conflict, Tension and Audience Participation

screenwriting
Novel writers can learn a lot about story development from the  screenwriting industry. In my previous blog, I dealt with how screenwriters use Story, Plot, Arc and Theme to develop a story.

This month I want to look at how screenwriters use Conflict, Tension and Audience Participation to grip an audience. The essential elements of what makes a good story well told according to David Howard and Edward Mabley in The Tools of Screenwriting — A writers Guide Craft and Elements of  Screenplay are:

  1. The story is about somebody with whom we have some empathy.
  2. This somebody wants something very badly.
  3. This something is difficult, but possible to do, get, or achieve.
  4. The story is told for maximum emotional impact and audience participation in the proceedings.
  5. The story must come to a satisfactory ending (which does not necessarily mean a happy ending).

I doubt whether there are many screenwriters or novel writers would disagree with this analysis. It’s a simple analysis, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to apply in practice.

The first three elements are all about a conflict. The protagonist desperately wants or desires something (an objective) but struggles to get it (because of difficult obstacles), and in the course of the story this struggle escalates until it reaches a climax and resolution. It follows that the objective should be something big that has serious consequences for the protagonist, or for those he/she cares for. For example, life or death either in the literal or figurative sense.

The First Act is normally all about setting up the story premise (what the story is going to be about) and introducing the protagonist. By the end of the First Act the protagonist should have found his objective, which will drive the story forward for the next two acts. The Second Act is all about the protagonist’s struggle to reach that objective, and the Third Act is about resolving it.

So how do you tell the story for maximum emotional impact and audience participation? Have you read a book you couldn’t put down, or watched a movie that kept you on the edge of your seat? How did the writer do it?

Many years ago I read Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. It’s an amazing book. For the first third of the book I found it very slow. For the final two-thirds I couldn’t put the book down until I finally finished it at 4:30 in the morning.  So I didn’t get much sleep that night! How did Forsyth keep my attention? He did so by switching between different character points of view from chapter to chapter. So one chapter about a character would end at a crucial point where you wanted to know what happened to him/her next. But in the next chapter Forsyth would switch to another character’s point of view, which meant you would have to read through the next chapter before getting back to the first character again. And guess what — that chapter would also end at a critical point or cliff hanger for that character. And so you would have to read on and on.

Therefore, the way to tell a story with maximum emotional impact and reader/audience participation is to focus the reader/audience’s attention on what happens next, and according to Paul Joseph Gulino there are four simple screenwriting tools:

  1. Telegraphing/pointing/ advertising. It means telling the audience/reader what is going to happen, so they are waiting for it to happen. A character says he’s going to kill someone and goes off to do it, but we don’t see what happens next until later. This telegraphing can also be used to falsely lead the audience so there is shock when something different happens. Another form of telegraphing is a deadline, or ticking clock. For example, a bomb that is due to explode and the protagonist only has limited time to find it and defuse it. Note that tension here is created by the expectation of the event happening — the bomb exploding. An unexpected surprise event by itself ( the bomb exploding) doesn’t create tension.
  2. The Dangling cause. When something happens (a cause) the audience expect an effect. But what happens if the effect is delayed? The reader’s/audience’s attention is focused on the future. Someone makes a proposal of marriage, but we don’t see the other party answering it until much later. It keeps the audience guessing what might happen.
  3. Dramatic irony. This is where the reader/audience knows more information than the protagonist or other character in the story and this creates an anticipation that the information will be revealed  at some later point in the story. The effect is the audience is waiting for it to happen. Hitchcock was master of dramatic irony. Remember when the detective in Psycho was climbing the stairs. The audience knew who was waiting for him at the top of the stairs, but the detective didn’t.
  4. Dramatic tension. This is where the protagonists wants something or wants to avoid something and is having trouble doing it. This often involves chases or escapes. The uncertainty of what might happen to the protagonist is what generates an emotional response in the reader — hope they will succeed or fear that they will fail. Dramatic tension is probably the most powerful technique a writer can use. But it only works where the writer has created a strong empathetic bond between the reader/audience and the protagonist.

So tension is about the reader’s/ audience’s emotional connection to the protagonist — their concern for the future of the protagonist and those the protagonist cares for. If there is no future uncertainty or consequences for failure, there is little or no emotional connection between the reader/audience and the protagonists. If the protagonist is not fearful, why should the reader be? Also if the protagonist’s future is predictable, there is no uncertainty and therefore no emotion.

We have all read stories that have failed for one reason or another. They may have attractive plots or interesting characters, but if there is no serious conflict and tension then the reader’s or audience will quickly lose attention. It is important to remember that conflict is a struggle between competing forces. It is not necessarily action sequences such as car chases or shoot outs. Some of the most powerful conflicts arise where the protagonist has to make a choice between two equally unacceptable bad outcomes. Does Superman save Louise  or does he stop the nuclear rocket exploding on the San Andreas fault? Dilemma is therefore a powerful source of tension.

A specific scene of sequence will normally have its own specific tension, but there is  also a Main Tension that lasts for the whole duration of the Second Act. The Main Tension can normally be expressed as a question. For example, in Star Wars, New Hope, Luke and Obi Wan set off at the end of the First Act to take the battle plans (in R2D2) to the rebels. During the Second Act they get deflected from his course by being caught in the Death Star’s tractor beam, rescuing Princess Leia and escaping the Death Star.  But at the beginning of the Act 2 we could have asked the question — will Luke get the Death Star plans to the rebel alliance? The question was answered at the end of Act 2 — Yes.

Act 3 has a New Tension — will the rebel alliance be able to destroy the Death Star? The question is answered at the climax of the story with Luke destroying the Death Star. It is also interesting to note, that Luke’s objective, determined at the end of Act 1, was to help Princess Leia and the Rebel Alliance, and this ultimately led to him helping them destroy the Death Star. So only one objective should drive the protagonist, but different Tensions apply for Act 2 and Act 3.

When writing it’s easy to get caught up in the flow and tension of a particular scene. However, as story writers we need to understand how these scenes and sequences work together. Understanding the Main Tension for the Second Act and New Tension for the Third Act will ensure your writing is properly focused.

To some extent there are significant differences between story telling in movies and story telling in books. They are different mediums and use different effects. For example, movies are very visual whereas a novel may tell you what the main character is thinking. But this does not mean that as authors we can’t learn something about story telling from the movie industry.

So what do you think? Do you think that these screenwriting story tools could be helpful for you as a writer, and if so, would you consider using them?

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