Imagine a Chair

#02 -- Narrative Tension

Oh, hey there! Welcome back.

One of the biggest problems I see in comics and comic scripts is a lack of narrative tension. Tension pulls us along, drawing us deeper into the story. Without it, things can often feel flat, dull and a bit pointless.

There are many things that cause a lack of tension. Frequent culprits include a narrow emotional range, or a lack of passion from the characters; character dynamics that never shift or surprise us; wonky or slow pacing that distract from the story. But beneath all of that, a lack of narrative tension is often caused by a basic structural issue. And that’s the focus of this week’s column.

You’re going to hear me talk a lot about storytelling structure in these columns, so let me provide a basic definition: storytelling structure is the order and fashion in which you relay information to the reader.

And now a second definition: narrative tension is the disparity of information between the reader and characters. It’s the gulf between what the audience knows and what the characters know.

With that in mind, let’s break narrative tension down into three basic categories (not an exhaustive list, but one that covers most situations):

1. Things we know that the characters don’t.
Two characters are having a conversation. But there’s a bomb under the floorboards and it could go off at any moment. We know it, but they don’t. They’re just going on about their day while we cringe in our seats, waiting for the explosion.

2. Things some characters know that others don’t.
This is really a broadening of the first one, because we still have the information, and some characters still don’t. But again: two characters are having a conversation. Bomb under the floorboards. One of the characters knows it, and is trying like hell to extract herself from the conversation and make it out in one piece, all while not tipping off the other character.

3. Things the characters know that we don’t.
This time, we don’t know about the bomb. All we know is, this character sure is acting squirrely and desperate, and it makes us want to know why. You see this category a lot in detective fiction and mystery stories; Columbo clearly has the whole thing figured out, but we don’t, and we’re trying to keep up.

And please don’t let my “bomb under the floorboards” example lead you to think that tension must always be big and life-threatening. It can be far more mundane as well. A woman is trying to empty her business’ bank account, but we know that her business partner already drained it; a husband has lost his wedding ring and is trying to keep his wife from finding out; a man breaks down crying at his retirement party, and we have no idea why.

Let’s close out with a final example: in the original Star Wars trilogy, the truth about Luke Skywalker’s parentage is revealed gradually, with a few fake-outs along the way. That’s the structure George Lucas and crew chose, and the narrative tension comes from the fact that neither Luke nor the audience knows the truth about his parentage. Many of those who do know (his aunt and uncle, Ben Kenobi) tell him conflicting sets of lies and then die, leaving Luke to learn the truth from Big Poppa himself.

Lucas and his crew could have, instead, opened the first movie with a prologue (or a crawl!) that revealed the truth about Luke’s parentage. That would have been a very different structure, and provided a different type of narrative tension. We know the truth, and we know Ben Kenobi knows the truth, and every scene between him and Luke is shaded with that knowledge*.

* Quick sidenote: this second scenario is how most people now view the Star Wars movies; advance knowledge of a movie’s twists and turns changes the narrative structure and warps the storyteller’s intent. Sometimes this happens because a story is an established classic, but often, these days, it happens due to marketing. In The Sixth Sense, there were two major plot twists. The second, of course, is that Bruce Willis’ character is dead. But the first is that Haley Joel Osment’s character is communicating with the dead. When he reveals this to Willis, it’s clearly intended as a dramatic revelation; all their prior scenes are built around Willis trying to unravel the mystery of this child’s affliction. But the marketing folks chose to put the line “I see dead people” in every commercial, and this narrative tension was lost. In your own story, it’s worth considering what narrative tension will be lost in pre-release marketing, and do your best to work around that.

Now imagine if Star Wars had started by telling us about Luke’s parentage; and then revealing that Luke himself knew. He knew, we knew, his aunt and uncle knew, the droids knew, the jawas and the banthas knew. Everyone knew. It sounds ridiculous, but this is how many starting writers construct their plots. There is no mystery to drive things forward, no narrative tension to pull us in. If your story feels a bit slack and lackluster, consider what you could do to increase the narrative tension. At some point we’ll double back around to discuss those three types of narrative tension, and when each is the most appropriate.

See you next week.


This column is written by Paul Allor. You can find out more about him here.
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