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Some Mechanisms Underlying Narrative Tension

Since the WIP I’m finishing up is an espionage fantasy, it’s safe to say I’ve been thinking a lot about pacing and how thrillers achieve their heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat engagement with the reader. Superficially, they do it through mounting tension followed by an action-packed release of that tension. But that describes the characteristics of their pacing, and not their mechanism. How is that effect produced?

I’ve got a theory (which I go into below), but I’d love to know what everyone else thinks.

Where Does Narrative Tension Come From?

Alfred Hitchcock famously suggested that tension didn’t come from a bomb exploding under a table, but rather from the audience knowing that the bomb was about to go off while the hero did not. I can’t think of anything more important to narrative tension than this principle: tension doesn’t come from plot, and it doesn’t come from the characters. It comes from the reader.

When we read a story, we bring our own experiences to the table. One might even think of stories as being half-complete without the reader: our physiological, mental, and neurological reactions are the medium through which the story gets perceived. But as lowly writers we rely on our words to push the reader’s buttons and so evoke an emotional, physiological, and intellectual response.

Like time, narrative is never static, and it moves in only one direction. This structure gets reflected at every level of storytelling, from in the overall shape the story takes all the way down to the sentence. The fact that narrative has sequence makes tension possible because the two mechanisms through which tension is created rely on it. Without sequence, anticipation and resolution would be impossible.

Anticipation, Uncertainty, and Attention

I like to think of readers’ capacity to experience narrative tension as a happy consequence of our evolution: the same pattern-seeking that let our ancestors eat, today enables us to enjoy stories. We are structurally savvy as a result: give us two beats and we expect the third.

This means that when we experience a story, we constantly strive to stay one step (or more) ahead. This anticipatory tendency occurs along all dimensions: we anticipate how characters will feel, we anticipate how characters will think, we anticipate how events will unfold, and we anticipate how the story will affect us.

These many levels of anticipation are directed by the writing: as we read, we learn more about the events of the story, about the characters’ perceptions, about the direction in which the writer wants to take us. We find this evidence in the events the writer portrays, in the way the prose is expressed, and even in the structures of sentences and chapters. We internalize all of the evidence, and it shapes our expectations. Yet there always remains a degree of uncertainty.

We are imperfect predictors, and our expectations are just as fallible when experiencing narrative as when predicting the stock market. Our own awareness of this fact generates uncertainty around our expectations: we think we know what will happen, but until it does, we are never completely certain.

The act of reading is one of battling uncertainty: as we follow the story, we collect additional evidence to refine our unspoken expectations. With each sentence, the range of possibilities narrows. If all of the evidence confirms our expectations, proves that we were right, then the story becomes dull and predictable. But when events unfold in an unexpected direction – while retaining their plausibility – our attention gets focused.

This is why complications and setbacks are such powerful storytelling tools. Complications for the sake of complication are worthless. A checklist of challenges that must be overcome does nothing to heighten tension. Yet when a complication is non-obvious but internally consistent with all the preceding evidence, it represents a significant new set of facts for our pattern-seeking minds to take into account. This focuses our attention, as we use this new information to refine our expectations going forward.

Each time our attention is re-focused, our investment in the story increases. We become more engaged and we pay closer attention, so that our updated set of expectations can be more accurate than our last.

The Evidence that Drives Expectations

The content of the story (i.e. the events, the characters, and their emotional journey) is some of the most significant evidence that readers use to shape their expectations. When it comes to the content, everything is of a piece: character, events, and emotions all shape one another.

Characters respond to events and in so doing create new events. Their responses are influenced by their emotions and knowledge, which in turn are both shaped by past events. When a story gives us insight into a character’s inner perceptions, when the writer shows us something about the character’s nature, it provides enormous amounts of additional information which we subsequently use to adjust our own expectations as audience.

Luke Skywalker and Han Solo will respond to the same stimuli differently. We engage more fully with (read: we pay closer attention to) characters who are more complex because they force us to re-evaluate our expectations more frequently. If we have a one-note character, their responses to events will always be predictable and our attention (and resulting investment in the character) will flag. But a character whose motivations are more complicated has a greater capacity to defy our expectations, which in turn increases our attention and our investment in the character and their story. Which is why Han Solo is more beloved of fans than Luke Skywalker (the ostensible hero).

But defying audience expectations is not universally good. When events unfold without adequate setup, then the contract between writer and reader gets broken. That implied contract states “Everything I show you contributes to the story.” The implicit consequence of this contract is that the reader can shape his or her expectations based on the story’s prior evidence. But when events and character responses unfold implausibly given that prior evidence, then the rationale that enables anticipation – and its resulting tension, attention, and investment – collapses. Which is why the Star Wars prequels fail: they invalidate the evidence derived from the original trilogy, and within their own story arc, their events develop implausibly. (I’ve got an earlier post on plausibility’s relationship to surprises and tension here)

Resolution, Acceleration, and Satisfaction

Stress is bad for our health. And unresolved tension, the kind of unflagging suspense that only increases without any release, becomes quite stressful. For tension to be productive, it must at some point get resolved.

We all know the feeling: that relaxed sigh of release at the end of a roller-coaster, or at the end of a particularly powerful experience. In fiction, we get that when all of the uncertainty and varied expectations crystallize into one – internally consistent – reality. It is where the disparate plot threads and character arcs come together on thematic and contentual levels.

But to produce a satisfying resolution, the means by which the tension gets resolved must remain plausible within the context of the prior evidence given to the reader. Without that, the anticipation that has been so painstakingly built is undermined at the most important moment. This gets complicated, particularly with complex stories with multiple levels of conflict and warring internal and external priorities. But that’s why successful resolution almost always relies on acceleration.

Good stories are often equated to roller-coasters, and that’s because the structure of their anticipation and resolution resembles one. The tension mounts as we go up the ever-steeper hill. We slow down, and the anticipation of the plunge to come grows. Then we reach the crest, and our car plummets down.

The plummet – contrary to simplistic views – is not the moment of resolution. It’s not the moment of release when we can sit back and enjoy a feeling of well-earned satisfaction. The plummet is the moment of acceleration, when the gradual accumulation of evidence (and its consequentially mounting anticipation) kicks into overdrive.

The whole way up, we’re collecting sensory evidence: the thinning air, the view from way up high, the slowing of the car, etc. That evidence tells us “We’re going to fall.” And with each rickety inch upwards, this expectation strengthens. At the top of the hill, we’re still collecting that evidence: now we see the drop, and so our expectations begin to crystallize. The range of possibilities narrows, and we say “We’re definitely going to fall.” As we take the plunge, we’re still collecting evidence: the howling wind, the yawning pit in our stomach, the screams around us. The rate at which evidence is accumulated, the degree to which the senses and the intellect are engaged, increases dramatically. And, influenced by our physiological response, our expectations naturally shift from “We’re definitely going to fall” to “We’re going to die.” When we survive, in defiance of everything our bodies led us to expect, that is the moment of resolution and the resulting sigh of release.

In fiction, the fast pace that leads to the story’s cathartic climax works the same way. The readers expectations modulate over the course of the story, expanding and contracting as new evidence of an emotional and experiential nature is offered them. The anticipatory tension grows leading up to the climax, and then the rate at which evidence is offered, the speed with which possibilities are narrowed down, accelerates dramatically until it resolves into the final – true – outcome.

When done well, the accelerating evidence remains consistent with what came before. But the amount of new evidence given the reader increases, while the space in which that information gets communicated shrinks. In other words, information density grows. If the plausibility of the new evidence is maintained, this creates a sense of inevitability: “Of course that’s how it happened! How else could it have?” And it is from this sense of inevitability – which exists in tension with our previous expectations – that satisfaction derives. And the degree of satisfaction we feel is ultimately determined by the degree to which all of the story’s elements – its characters, its plot, its writing, its themes, etc. – were unified in contributing to those reader’s expectations, and to maintaining the plausibility that lends the story inevitability.

Some stories play with this process in their dénoument – notably post-resolution. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd both do so by forcing a re-evaluation of prior evidence and expectations after the action’s resolution.

In other words, a reader’s attention is a function of mounting narrative tension, which itself is a consequence of the reader’s (conscious or unconscious) tendency to anticipate. As the story nears its conclusion, the rate at which evidence accumulates accelerates, which further focuses the reader’s attention and engagement with the story. And whether this resolution finally satisfies or not depends on the plausibility, internal consistency, and unity of all evidence when the story wraps up.

That’s my theory, at any rate. What do you think?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Just wanted to let you know I really enjoy this blog. As an aspiring writer in the genre, it’s fascinating stuff. I rarely comment, however, because I tend to save your posts until I’ve got some time to really dig into them, and then often by the time I’ve done so, it’s a week or three later. But I wanted you to know it’s good, thoughtful stuff. Far easier on the brain than a lot of the stuff I read in grad school, not because it’s “lighter,” but because of your style.

    September 20, 2012
    • Thanks for the comment! It really means a lot to me that you enjoy the blog, and that you share my interest in all these cool topics (and your thoughts on my style have put a big, pleased-as-punch smile on my face – if I ever start getting as unreadably dense as much academic criticism, please call me on it!).

      Seriously, thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting!

      September 20, 2012

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