How to Create Tension in a Fictional Scene
- 1). Determine who the two characters in your scene will be. The two characters don't necessarily have to both be main characters. One can be the protagonist in your story; the other can be an incidental character who will only appear in that scene.
- 2). Each character should want something in your scene. This is true even if one of your characters is merely an incidental character. For instance, your protagonist may want to get into a nightclub, but the bouncer (the incidental character) refuses to let him in.
- 3). What are the stakes in this scene? What does the protagonist really want? Using the example above, the protagonist might simply want to get into the nightclub, but what motivates him to want this? For instance, the protagonist might be attracted to one of the bartenders in the club. He wants to get into the club to tell her or him how he feels. This is his last chance to do so because the protagonist owes money to a local loan shark and must get out of town soon before he's exterminated by the loan shark's goons. Under these circumstances, the stakes are raised. It's not necessary to raise the stakes for the bouncer's motivations. But if you're building a scene in which both characters are main protagonists--for instance, two lovers or coworkers--you will want to raise the stakes for the second protagonist as well.
- 4). Determine the strategies in which either character pursues his goal. For instance, will the protagonist be demonstrative? Will he scream or behave as though he is entitled to get into the club? Or will he be sneaky and trick the bouncer? The protagonist could also try to bribe the bouncer. Determining your protagonist's strategies in how he attempts to achieve his goals and the way the antagonist undermines those strategies will escalate the tensions in the scene as both characters act and react to the obstacles they place in the other's way.
- 5). Make both characters equal in their wants. In the example above, clearly the protagonist isn't the equal of the bouncer, who controls who will and will not enter the club. Rather, each character should be equals in that they are prepared to confront each other to achieve their goals. This creates the kind of tension you will want to build upon in your scene.
- 6). Build on the obstacles both characters will act upon in the scene. In other words, each character should act and then react to the other. For instance, the scene begins with the protagonist wanting to get into the club (action) and the bouncer denying him entrance (reaction). The protagonist responds by trying to persuade the bouncer to let him in (reaction), but the bouncer still refuses (action). He responds again by telling him why he has to get into the club, hoping to win his sympathies (reaction). When that doesn't work (action), he tries to bribe the bouncer (action). Again, every effort is thwarted. Each time his effort is thwarted, the protagonist becomes more and more desperate until he tries to distract the bouncer and sneak into the club when he isn't looking (action). Here, the tension is raised when the bouncer responds when he physically pushes the protagonist away from the club entrance (reaction). Again, action and reaction. As each character creates an obstacle for the other, both the protagonist and the bouncer will be forced to escalate their reactions to them.
- 7). End the scene by either creating an impasse or by escalating the tensions of your characters (for instance, the protagonist might walk away dejected or spit in the bouncer's face, prompting the bouncer to physically remove him from the line). The scene itself should not resolve the issues the protagonist must overcome in your story. Rather, it creates mini-tensions that exacerbate the protagonist's conflict, forcing the story toward its resolution.