The Anatomy of a Problem: Creating Tension in Stories

Everyone likes a compelling story plot.  We enjoy the tension, the edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting excitement.  And yet, despite the simplicity of the subject, it’s still not something grasped by many writers.

You know the stories I’m talking about.  The ones that have all the elements of a gripping story, but then they just fall flat on their face.  It’s not just books that fail to create tension, movies and tv shows are also victims of lukewarm writing.

The Problem

Let’s look at the anatomy of a problem, as this is at the core of creating tension.  To have a problem, you must have two opposing impulses that are balanced.  To create tension, you must have a goal that has to be reached, except the problem is in the way.

Example: Frodo must get the Ring to Mordor and cast it into Mount Doom or the forces of Sauron will overrun the civilization of man.  Let’s break this down.

Impulse A: Frodo and the Fellowship trying to get to Mount Doom.
Impulse B: Sauron searches for his lost ring, orcs, goblins, etc.
Goal: Save the world.

Tension is created when it seems like Impulse A is about to be stopped by Impulse B.  Catharsis is achieved when Impulse A overcomes Impulse B through pluck, wit, teamwork, heroism, etc.  The cycle of tension and catharsis is what makes a story compelling.

Failure to produce tension occurs when no problem is presented.  There are many ways this can happen, but it really boils down to a failure to create a balance.  The bad guys seem overwhelmingly powerful, the good guys handle all incoming threats without breaking a sweat, there doesn’t seem to be a purpose behind the opposing impulses, etc.

I find this lack of tension most evident in the horror movie genre.  Too often the plot is just an excuse to have women running around screaming, gratuitous gore, jump scares, and stomach-twisting scenarios.  There is nothing wrong with that, in itself, but it’s so easy to create tension and all that stuff.

Pitfalls

Often in a story, you’ll have the good guys searching for some tool or method to overcome the seemingly overwhelming threat of the bad guys.  They find the magic MacGuffin, they learn a new spell, recruit the new ally, etc.  Then, hooray, the bad guy is overthrown!  The day is saved!

And then a sequel is produced and the heroes are more powerful than before.  Therefore, to create tension, the bad guys have to be even more bad, the threat has to be even more dangerous.  To compensate, the heroes become even stronger!  And it goes spiraling upward until Superman is created in a desperate bid to stay relevant.

Superman is the worst hero.  He’s too powerful!  Nothing can stop him but the MacGuffin.  He can do everything.  So how in the world are you supposed to create an equal and opposite impulse?  You end up with Batman vs. Superman, and the catharsis is that their moms have the same name.  Excuse me?  What hack thought that up?

There are a few ways to avoid this upward spiral of power.  One way is to carefully plan out every sequel so you finish the story you want to tell before your protagonist turns into a new pantheon just to contain their awesomeness.  Another is to recognize when a story needs to end and putting that final period in.

I used a third method in writing the Dragon Speaker Series.  Rather than sticking with the same protagonists and gradually spiraling out of control, the second half of the series follows a different set of protagonists.  Same world, fresh slate.  I can start with the basics and have character progression and expanding ability without turning the original protagonist into a god.

Application

When coming up with a new story, the core problem and goal is the first thing you have to create.  Sub plots revolve around the core problem, and build up pressure behind one impulse or the other.

Most importantly, you have to tell your audience what the problem and goal are.  When a story “starts slow” it’s because there’s a delay in presenting the problem or goal.  Often you have an explosive beginning to a story (literally or figuratively) because a moment of catharsis is the best way to introduce the core problem.  It sets the stakes, introduces the impulses, and gets the ball rolling.  However you achieve it, getting your audience clued in to the problem and goal should be the first thing you do, regardless of medium.