Writing Philosophy: Tension

Aw, yeah, my back DOES hurt…

Oh wait, the different kind of tension.

Today’s topic:
Tension

Alfred Hitchcock’s
“Bomb Under The Table”

For this topic I’d like to feature a famous quote from Alfred Hitchcock:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two.

Alfred Hitchcock

The famous Alfred Hitchcock has been known as the “Master of Suspense” for good reason.

A lot of the time his movies like Psycho or Vertigo aren’t exactly “scary” but they DO keep the audience on the edge of their seat.

This is compared to other directors at the time where they went with shock instead. Things like jump scares, loud noises and all that Jazz.

He continues in the quote with an example. A bomb under a table.

I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.

Alfred Hitchcock
Goodness gracious me!

This is an example of something being “shocking” or “surprising”.

You didn’t KNOW in advance that there would be a bomb under the table.

The explosion just happens with no prior clue beforehand that the people at the table were going to die.

Let’s see how Hitchcock would do it differently.

Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

Alfred Hitchcock

Now you have a ticking timebomb effect. That clock in the background keeps inching closer and closer to the one hour mark while the characters are unaware of what will happen.

In actuality this is still the exact same event as the previous one, it’s just that it’s PRESENTED differently. In the first example you’re surprised because there was no clue beforehand that the bomb was even there.

Thus when the bomb explodes, you’re shocked.

“Where the hell did THAT explosion come from?!”

But in the second example you’re shivering in anticipation.

Are the characters going to LEAVE the table before the bomb goes off?

Are they going to FIND the bomb before it’s too late?

Or are they going to be engulfed by the explosion when the bomb goes off at one ‘o clock?

The suspense is (hopefully not literally) killing you!

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

Alfred Hitchcock

Now, what Hitchcock describes is actually more about directing than it is about writing. But writing tension kinda works on the same principles.

If movies are about what’s IN the frame and what’s OUT of the frame, then writing is about what the audience DOES know and what the audience DOESN’T know.

If the audience DOESN’T know something is going to happen, and then it happens, it’s a surprise. If the audience DOES know something is going to happen but you taunt them with the knowledge as they’re unable to prevent it, it’s tension.

And depending on what you’re writing you may need one or the other.

But since we’re talking about tension, I’m going to mainly cover several techniques on how to pull THAT off in your writing.

Countdown

First off is the classic “countdown”.

You make the audience aware that something is going to happen once that counter either reaches zero or a specific number.

It doesn’t always have to be a number or clock, it can also be something like a fuse, which is why both the Mission Impossible TV Series and Movies use it in their openings to represent the franchise.

(Ghost Protocol in particular going to ridiculous lengths,
and I love it.)

The point is that you give an event something of a time limit. You know something is going to happen when that time limit reaches it’s end.

There might be something of a primal fear for humans as we’re aware of our own inevitable end and time being it’s only measure. The idea that you know EXACTLY when something is going to happen may end up being MORE terrifying than the idea that you’re living in ignorance.

This is why The Ring as a story can be terrifying. The infamous phone call saying “Seven Days” makes you recontextualize how little time 7 days can actually be and it drives up tension.

(Funnily enough, there was no voice that said “Seven Days” in the original Japanese version.)

Funny thing is you don’t even NEED to specify a time. Just the KNOWLEDGE that there IS a time limit already gives people a sense of anxiety.

If at the start of a movie you see someone trapped in an aquarium which is slowly filling up with water, nobody is going to make some kind of calculation of how long it’s going to take till it’s filled up. They KNOW it IS filling up. Every scene that ISN’T directly dealing with getting that person out of the aquarium will always have the “Ticking Timebomb” in the back of the audience’s head.

“GET THAT PERSON OUT OF THE AQUARIUM ALREADY!!!”

Of course, there’s a limit to how far you can stretch this.

The longer and longer you hold out the event, the more people will decide that it’s never ACTUALLY going to happen.

This is why it actually helps to know exactly WHEN it is going to happen. But just know that it IS possible to do it WITHOUT outright specifying the time of the event.

Threat

Another more basic technique of writing tension is simply having something threatening the characters.

Either the heroes are in a danger zone or there’s just this terrifying villain that seems invincible at first glance. This is why an underdog story is usually very engaging by nature, as you wonder how a hero can defeat a villain that is just THAT more powerful than them.

Of course there’s a fine line to tread between the hero being an underdog and the solution being unrealistic.

If it’s a DEFINITE certainty that the hero is going to lose, yet they end up winning anyway, you end up with people calling it a Deus Ex Machina.

This makes it less about the hero triumphing and more about the writers coming to the rescue, something that can end up deflating all FUTURE tension since now you know the writers aren’t above defying logic to have the hero win.

But balance it right and you will have the audience constantly wonder “are they going to make it?” throughout the whole conflict, which can help keep them invested in the story rather than just seeing swords swinging about.

Of course, you also need TIME to establish the threat, which is why it might be a problem if you focus on the heroes the whole time.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is a masterclass of story structure as it juggles multiple storylines one after another.

The A-Plot focuses on Luke Skywalker training to become a Jedi while the B-Plot focuses on Leia and Han fighting against the Empire. The script handles the pacing brilliantly as they always seem to cut to the OTHER plot RIGHT when the tension is at it’s highest in the CURRENT plot. This keeps you invested in BOTH plots.

But throughout the whole movie we also get some time to focus on Darth Vader and what he’s doing during these two plots.

By establishing how much of a danger Darth Vader is, you feel tension as you not only anticipate Luke’s inevitable battle against Darth Vader, but also feel the threat of him actually FIGHTING Darth Vader. He’s very clearly more powerful than Luke is and you’re on the edge of your seat of whether Luke is even ABLE to win against him.

Speaking of Star Wars!

Mystery Box

Next up is something J.J. Abrams likes to call the “Mystery Box”. He got that from Tannen’s Magic Mystery Box, which is a product which you buy without prior knowledge of what’s actually inside it.

I KNEW IT!

Basically he’s saying that the mystery is more important than the actual answer.

You build anticipation by adding intrigue to “what’s in the box” by purposefully holding off the answer.

Now it doesn’t HAVE to be a box, the point is that it’s a mystery that remains unanswered. “What’s in the box” just makes sense as a metaphor because you ARE able to see the outside of the box but unable to see what’s IN the box. Thus… a “Mystery Box”.

Of the techniques I’m listing here, this one may have the most pitfalls.

It IS true that in principle the mystery IS more important than the answer, but following this technique too much will end up with a story that brings frustration rather than intrigue if the answer is unsatisfactory.

The mystery ends up being worthless if the answer makes audience react with “really?” rather than “OH MY GOD!”.

That said, it IS effective if used right.

It can work for comedy, for example.

I think what’s most important is that you actually KNOW the answer AS you’re writing the mystery.

May sound obvious, but the LACK of answers during writing is what led to things like LOST.

On one hand it may bring less freedom to you as a writer as you now have to think about how the mystery can fit with the actual answer, but on the other hand at least the answer will fit with what’s established IN the mystery.

A good technique with writing the “Mystery Box” is by not making the mystery THAT big a deal as you introduce it. But slowly and steadily you keep adding more and more questions to it until the characters (and audiences) are GENUINELY curious to what the answer is.

You make the curiosity and tension grow organically that way. Somewhere inbetween you may even add implications that you don’t WANT to know the answer, but we all know you’re going to peek through your fingers to find out anyway.

THAT is an effective use for the “Mystery Box”.

Ambiguity

Another technique is outright ambiguity.

Technically you could consider this a subcategory of the “Mystery Box” since you also play with what the audience DOESN’T know to pull them into the mystery.

Main difference is the fact that you NEVER intend to outright reveal the answer.

Like the “Mystery Box” this works best if you as the writer have SOME idea of what the actual answer is. But due to the nature of the ambiguous nature, you may need to have multiple answers ready.

If done right, this gives the audience a LOT of things to think about after the story. The lack of answer drives them to continue asking questions and likely bother the writer for all eternity.

To do this right, though, you BETTER make sure that the driving question actually tells an AMAZING story as a result.

You can’t just have a mystery, not answering it and then just call it a day.

There’s a big difference between “ambiguous answer” and “NO answer”.

You still need to have SOMETHING in mind.

Don’t ever actually GIVE them the answer, but give them JUST enough snippets of the answer to keep them interested.

Basically… you leave bread crumbs! (Come on, we all know this story!)

Most importantly, the CHARACTERS need to be affected by the ambiguity.

They don’t necessarily need to be CURIOUS about the answer, so long as the ambiguity AFFECTS them, like driving them into paranoia and whatnot.

There is an anthology Horror movie named XX which is available on Netflix as of this writing that has a segment called “The Box”.

The only answer you will ever get for what exactly affected the characters is a vague word, but the implication (as impossible as it may seem) is enough to drive the story forward into the disturbing direction the characters will go to throughout the segment.

A lot of H.P. Lovecraft stories work with this technique.

Warning: may cause psychosis and doubts on your humanity… and weirdly enough make you consider whether you’re actually a fish.

Speaking of fish!

Music

Yeah, this one is less about writing and more about movies, but it would be weird NOT to talk about this subject since it’s a tool that’s definitely used for the sake of tension in ANY media that features sound.

We all know this tune, right?

I know it’s a still picture, yet I still feel like something is coming.

Music by nature has some ambiguity inherently built into it. People by nature prefer to perceive the world through sight rather than hearing, which means that hearing something is coming can be more ominous and emotional than whatever sight you may have.

If affects your FEELINGS rather than you LOGIC.

The reason the Jaws theme works is that it plays with the tempo. It starts up very slow, but the further it goes the faster it gets until finally you get the pay-off. It’s almost like it’s a representation for your heart going faster and faster in anticipation.

And since we as humans love to “monkey see, monkey do”… yeah it can actually end up making it reality.

As you can tell, using music can enhance all previous techniques as it helps getting the feelings across in addition to the tension you build up through writing.

It works with countdowns,

threats,

the Mystery Box,

and ambiguity.

Do note that it can be just as effective to have NO music. The Ju-On films are effective at this. The fact that NOTHING is happening at all can give you discomfort and you end up getting tension because you anticipate SOMETHING happening.

Conclusion

I think the most important take-away from this is that there’s many ways to handle tension in your story. The techniques I listed are just a few of MANY ways you can handle it.

But each technique comes with their own pros and cons.

In the end, tension is about what the audience DOES and DOESN’T know, something that the writers can control by picking the right times to reveal snippets of the answer throughout the story.

It IS however important to give a pay-off to all that tension.

Whether it’s a definite answer, an ambiguous answer or even NO answer (if pulled off right), that’s still a pay-off nonetheless.

Of course, it doesn’t always have to be the most COMPLICATED answer.

Sometimes the most obvious answer can be just as satisfactory.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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