Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Narrative Tension’

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?

Surprise! Plausibility and Its Relationship to Tension and Plot Twists


Beyond the pages of fiction, I hate surprises. Their timing is invariably inconvenient, and more often than not I could do without the surprise itself (Surprise! Flat tire!). But in fiction, I love surprises. I love plot twists, betrayals, and the resonant resolution of building tension. Fictional surprises are on my mind just now because of a question in last week’s I Should Be Writing podcast, and so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

Plausibility as the Foundation of Surprise

Regardless of the story, irrespective of the genre, and notwithstanding the nature of the surprise, nothing kills a surprise faster than implausibility. We all know that moment in bad fiction when we exclaim “Oh, c’mon!” and throw up our hands. It is always a moment of the writer’s laziness, when characters and their choices become subordinate to the needs of unfolding action. In good fiction, those relationships should be reversed: it is characters and the choices that they make which drives action.

Consider one of the greatest “surprises” in fantasy: Gollum’s attack on Frodo above the Crack of Doom in The Return of the King. This one moment is such a significant surprise that it gave rise to an entire trope in fantasy, that of eucatastrophe: a deus ex machina event that reverses certain failure and saves the day. Now, as a critical or structural descriptor, I hate eucatastrophe. I think it’s a false device, which mischaracterizes what is actually happening in the story. But Gollum’s attack nevertheless remains a pivotal, climactic, surprising, and satisfying moment.

The resonance of that moment stems from the plausibility of the characters’ actions. That Frodo would refuse to destroy the ring is the first “surprise” – after all, he is the noble hero and his refusal is the explicit failure of his quest (see my earlier comments on that score here). But Frodo’s failure is not, actually, a surprise. Tolkien has been establishing its plausibility for three whole books by that point. Noble Frodo’s entire arc culminates in that one moment, when he betrays his own values.

Similarly, Gollum’s attack – when he “inadvertently” saves the day – is perfectly plausible given what Tolkien has shown us of his nature. We believe that Gollum would do it, and that makes the “surprise” possible. If Gollum had tried to reason with Frodo, it would have been patently out of character and therefore thoroughly implausible.

When I look for ways to model “surprises” in my own writing, I tend to look at the mystery genre. The classic “whodunit” structure relies upon establishing a logical, plausible chain of clues which lead us to the “surprising” culprit. In some cases, the reader discovers clues alongside the sleuth and the mystery becomes a game of wits. The surprise remains plausible because we are given all of the tools to solve the mystery ourselves.

In other cases, particularly in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, this type of divination is impossible because the author hides essential facts. But just because they are hidden from the reader does not, automatically, make them implausible. Instead, it puts pressure on the hero (in this case Sherlock Holmes) to convince us that he was aware of them all along. It is Holmes’ charisma and plausibility as a character that prevents his revelations from turning into flat statements of “Oh, by the way, here are essential facts that you had no way of knowing.”

Consider Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It remains a polarizing book to this day, precisely because its surprising solution (which relies on an unreliable narrator) flouts the “accepted” conventions of the mystery genre. And yet, the surprise and the mystery itself remain satisfying (at least for me) because they remain perfectly plausible within the world established by the story. While the surprise forces a re-evaluation of the preceding text, one cannot say “I don’t buy it”.

If a surprise is implausible, if the groundwork has not been laid to make it “natural”, then it will fail. Failure does not mean that the audience isn’t surprised: it means that the audience throws up its hands, and rejects the narrative outright. This is a much more damning criticism, and one that consigns the story to ultimate irrelevance.

Plausibility and Its Relationship to Tension

Surprises and plausibility are indelibly linked to tension. A balance must be struck between establishing the plausibility of an incipient surprise, and telegraphing its arrival. Managing that tension is key to maintaining the reader’s engagement with the story. We want the reader on the edge of their seat. So how to get that? I believe the trick lies in information flow.

There is a difference between what the reader knows, and what a character knows. Slasher films love this tension-building device, and for good reason: if we are engaged with a character and we know that there’s a knife-wielding lunatic hiding in their closet, our natural instinct is to warn them (I admit to yelling at the TV during episodes of Criminal Minds). The tension in these scenes works because while we know what is coming, we share at least some of the character’s ignorance: we don’t know when the knife will fall. This selective knowledge keeps us antsy, and makes us jump when the knife finally flashes.

Outside of the over-exaggerated tension of the slasher flick, however, the same dynamic is at play. Steven Erikson’s epic Malazan Books of the Fallen features a dizzying array of political betrayals. But by telling the story from multiple perspectives, Erikson is able to show the reader the unfolding betrayals long before they are enacted. We know – in a loose, general sense – what is coming and what our heroes are ignorant of, and so when the moment arrives it produces a satisfying release of tension.

This same effect can be even more subtle, through the manipulation of reader emotions. In Ray Bradbury’s classic “The Veldt” we don’t need to know, exactly, what will happen to feel tense or be surprised. Instead, Bradbury builds a gradual sense of foreboding, a conviction that the other shoe will drop. What that means, what it entails, and when it will happen is not apparent. The onus of plausibility is spread across characters, events, environment, and most importantly the reader’s emotion. If the resolution of that tension did not satisfy the foreshadowed foreboding, then it would ultimately be an unsatisfying story: we would feel cheated.

The subtler manipulation of reader expectations relies on careful psychology, and an understanding of the reader’s familiarity with genre conventions. Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is controversial precisely because its surprise subverts those expectations. John Scalzi’s new novel Redshirts similarly relies on the reader’s familiarity with science fiction television tropes. Without the reader’s pre-existing familiarity, it becomes much harder for the reader to be one step ahead of the heroes…and as a result, the reader’s satisfaction will be diminished.

Fictional Surprises and a Rare (for me) Sports Metaphor

In essence, what this means is that readers don’t want real surprises. The true surprise, the one that we never see coming, lacks the foundation that makes it plausible. It is the flyball out of left field that hits us in the head and gives us a concussion.

By contrast, a good fictional surprise builds off of the foundations established in the preceding text. It builds off of the character, their personality, the trajectory of their narrative arc, and the structure of the overall story. If a true surprise is the concussive flyball, then a good surprise is the flyball out which the astute reader sees coming, that makes them race for the fences and leap to catch it just before it becomes a home run. It isn’t the inciting moment (the bat hitting the ball) that makes the surprise satisfying, nor is it the outfielder’s surprising leap. The surprise, and the satisfaction that derives from it, is the inevitable slap of the baseball hitting the outfielder’s leather mitt.

%d bloggers like this: