Scene tension — how to achieve it

Scene tension in Edge of Tomorrow
Scene tension in Edge of Tomorrow

In my classes on storytelling I often talk about spring-loading the writing with contradictory cues to increase scene tension. 

This does not only encourage the viewer or reader to pay closer attention to the words and actions of the characters, it alerts her to what might be going on under the surface.

Additionally, when the release does finally come, usually at the end of the scene, it has been properly foreshadowed.

Here’s an example:

Imagine an army media-relations Major trying to get out of a dangerous assignment at the war front by threatening to badmouth a General to the media about military losses under his command.

“The bad way to try and achieve scene tension is to have an exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party shouting the other down at the end.”

The better way is how the screenwriters handled it in Edge of Tomorrow

In the scene, Major Cage does indeed threaten to ruin General Brigham, but he does this in a calm, almost polite way. Brigham’s response is equally calm and collected. 

In the beginning, Cage seemingly holds the advantage. Brigham is sitting down while Cage stands. This is always an advantage in scenes of conflict. He seems to be swaying Brigham with his reasoning.

But the advantage surreptitiously swings over to Brigham when he stands up. He towers over the more diminutive Cage, and paces calmly towards him. Cage retreats. 

Although Cage remains under the impression that Brigham is going along with his suggestion, he betrays his nervousness when he backs up against a chair, startled. 

This small incident emphasises the inherent tension in the scene and precedes Brigham issuing orders to have Cage stripped of his rank and dumped at the training camp prior to dropping him into the war zone.

No arm-waving. No raised voices. Just well-written action that moves in counterpoint to the threatening import of the dialogue. 

Summary

Create scene tension in your story by having actions play out in counterpoint to threats being delivered through dialogue.

Invitation

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2 thoughts on “Scene tension — how to achieve it

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    When it comes to tension action speak louder then words. To exchange of raised voices and angry gestures with one party shouting the other down at the end – This is how soaps work. That’s why Spanish and Afrikaans soups come across as cheesy and melodramatic. But when it comes to series the writers have the luxury of not having to producer scripts that have to be shot ten weeks in advance to meet the demands of a production that is broadcast five times a week.

    A series like Breaking Bad has treasure after countless treasure of scenes loaded with tension.
    One of the best examples is the first episode of season four.
    Walt and Jesse are held in the lab by Victor and Mike, anxiously awaiting Gus’ reaction to the murder of Gale. When Gus finally arrives he does not confront Walt with words. Instead he takes out a knife and kills Victor in front of everyone. After this brutal murder Gus tells Walt to get back to work. It’s a chilling scene because through action Walt knows that if he tries something again it will be his last mistake.

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