7 Super Effective Ways To Ramp Up The Tension In Your Screenplay


Dramatic conflict is the backbone of quality screenplays. What better ways to raise the conflict in your screenwriting than modulating the tension in your story?

Tension in your writing can be defined as a period of elevated emotional intensity.

Here are some ways to effectively utilize tension in your story:

1) BURSTS OF TENSION

Tension can be either short lived or sustained. In order for tension to be effective in your script, it must be ACTIVATED, SUSTAINED and RELEASED. Prolonged tension will only tire and disengage your audience.

2)  MACRO INTENSITY

The levels of tension must be manipulated to hook your audience. Firstly consider the overall level of danger in the story arc.

In the macro story, the tension needs to be escalated in a “SAW TOOTH” format. This is basically the attack-sustain-release model. Think about the set pieces in your story and how they correlate with periods of  tension. My preference is for adding at least eight bursts of tension according to the eight sequence screenplay model.

3) MICRO INTENSITY 

Micro tension is more relevant to plot beats. It adds texture to your screenwriting and adds more to character depth by exploring how they react to adverse situations. Macro intensity tension relates more to the overall plot of your story.

As their name suggests, they are more obstacles to your main characters rather than life threatening danger. I suggest sprinkling micro intensity tension in your script to add texture.

4) DARK INTENSITY

This plays on your audience’s curiosity, by not fully revealing all the information. It could be a secret, a shadowy figure with a mask or a warning by a stranger.

Add a secret that a character can’t reveal.

This type of tension can also be raised by deliberately creating confusion by not rounding out your story with a meaningful conclusion. Sure, a story climax is reached, but it’s left open-ended so the audience needs to figure out how the story might end.

5) SHIFT POWER BALANCE BETWEEN HERO AND VILLAIN

I love this one. In order for your story to be be powerful, your main characters should have similar strengths, be formidable adversaries, and have equal conviction in their beliefs.

In order to add tension and keep your audience guessing the story outcome, shift the power balance between your hero and villain; particularly during combat. Who will win the fight when both are strong contenders?

6) UNRESOLVED SEXUAL TENSION 

This one works across all genres; especially when two people are attracted to each other, , forced to be together, but can’t act on their physical impulses.

One or bother (or more) characters are emotionally unavailable, work together and value professionalism, are afraid, are married; or a host of other  reasons keeping them apart.

Then a magical moment strikes… when it seems they may actually have their first kiss. BUT… they’re interrupted.  Noooooo!

7) COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

This can raise the stakes due to either internal or external factors.

External factors include familiar tropes such as cell phone batteries dying or poor signal strength, wrong numbers, incorrect email or physical addresses, stuck in traffic or meeting up at the wrong place.

Internal factors include the things your characters should say but can’t; mainly die to fear of rejection, being misunderstood or fear of hurting the other person.

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