Tag Archives: conflict

Tension in Physical Confrontations

Martial ArtsCujoWhich scene evokes more tension?

1 – Two master martial artists dueling in a high-flying contest of furious fists?

2 – A child trying to hold a door closed against a huge, rabid dog?

Most people choose number two, even though both contests could likely result in at least one person dying, and the first contest might be more visually impressive. Why is the image of the child against the rabid dog inherently more tense?

Here are a couple of reasons:

  1. Need a real threat of danger. If we don’t feel the threat, we don’t feel the tension. That’s why humorous confrontations lack tension. (Think most of the fight scenes in Get Smart) In the amazing martial-artist duel, there is a threat of danger, but if both men are equally matched, that threat alone is not enough to ratchet up the tension. We need to add in another element.
  2. Disparity of force. If the hero is most likely going to lose, we feel more tension. Think David vs Goliath (if we didn’t already know the ending). In the martial-arts example, it’s more tense if the hero is somehow at a disadvantage and more likely to lose. One of the major reasons we feel such tension in the child vs dog example is that the dog holds a huge advantage unless the child can lock the door. Add to that the natural tendency of most people to want to protect children, and the tension grows tenfold.
  3. Stakes. The higher the stakes, the greater the tension. If the outcome doesn’t matter, there’s no tension. If the hero’s life, or the life of a loved one, is on the line, the tension can shoot through the roof. Add to that the fact that the hero finds themselves at a terrible disadvantage, and the tension ratchets up another white-knuckled notch.

Also remember, often the lead-up to a fight is more tense than the fight itself. In the middle of a fight sequence, we get caught up in the thrill of the battle. Sometimes we get swept away by how cool the fight sequence is and may not actually feel so much tension as we did before the fighting started.

Batman vs BaneLet’s look at a couple of examples from well-known films. First consider Batman’s final fight with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. An awesome fight scene, but what filled it to overflowing with tension was the fact that Batman had faced Bane before and lost. The hero faced a very real possibility of losing again, of getting broken and defeated. But he stood up and faced his enemy, despite the risks, and that made us cheer for him, even while filled with nervous tension that made the eventual victory that much more delicious.

ANeo vs Mr Smithnother great example is in The Matrix in the fight scene between Neo and Mr. Smith. The entire movie sets up the tension, with the viewers being told and demonstrated over and over again that the Agents were impossible to beat and that everyone who had ever tried to stand against them had died.

Then Neo is forced into a position where he chooses to fight anyway, and the tension is awesome. The resulting fight scene is super-epic, our enjoyment magnified by that huge tension build-up.

An important note is that the stakes need to be believable. For example, in the recent hugely-popular movie Avengers Civil War, the tension didn’t work for me because I felt he set-up for the fight between heroes that I both thought were great wasn’t done well. I didn’t believe that they had sufficient justification to try killing each other, so the stakes felt hollow, and the tension weak. The fight scenes were well choreographed, but they lacked true tension because they felt forced.

And sometimes the most tense scenes are the ones where the hero and the antagonist are forced to be polite to each other, but are yearning to leap at each others’ throats. The tension in such pre-fight confrontations can be dialed up to delicious levels.

One great example is Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy meets his arch rival, Belloq, in the café, right after the scene where we’re led to believe the leading lady, Miriam, just died. The conversation is laced with insults, and the threat of fatal violence bubbles just under the surface. It’s a great example to study.

So, let’s assume we’ve got a great confrontation planned, with serious stakes that have been well established, with a very real threat of danger, and with the bad guy holding every advantage. It’s still all too easy to destroy the tension by failing to manage the pacing, or by including too many details.

Princess BrideConflicts have to move along at an increasing tempo. They can start slow – think the epic sword duel in The Princess Pride – but the tempo must increase, then increase some more, that rising tempo helping to raise the tension level.

During a fight scene is not the time to suddenly pause to discuss the finer details of craftsmanship of the weapons being wielded, what types of metals were used in building them, or the history of their use. If fighting with guns, don’t pause to discuss the pros and cons of different calibers, or compare the ballistics. Nor is it the time for long monologues or exhaustive self-analysis. Such detours kill the tempo and pacing and snuff out the tension. If such details are important, include them somewhere prior to the fight so the reader already understands.

One must also be careful not to share too many details. Imagine trying to read a detailed blow-by-blow account of an epic martial-arts duel. Such a chronicle would run for pages and pages, and would bore the readers to tears and destroy any chance of maintaining pacing or tension.

So pick the most important details and focus on those. Paint the other aspects of the fight with broad strokes, including enough sensory detail to lock the reader into the scene. Make sure the blocking is clear so the reader understands the physical location and how the combatants are moving within the space, but don’t describe every punch, swing, or the trajectory of each bullet. Then dive deep into the critical final sequence, slowing the action and increasing the level of detail so the reader is absolutely dialed in to what is happening. This will increase tension even more, as well as the pay-off.

If those moments are properly set up, they will explode across the page with increasing tempo, careful choices of details, focus on the stakes and the ultimate conclusion, resulting in amazing scenes that will linger in readers’ minds long after they reach the last page.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
No Stone UnturnedFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers sci-fi time travel thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Tension

If you pull on an object with a rope, the rope will stretch slightly (often imperceptibly). This stretch in the rope will cause the rope to be taut (e.g. under tension) which allows the rope to transfer a force from one side of the rope to the other.

We’ve all seen movies or read books that had us either figuratively or literally sitting on the edges of our seats. Those crazy action sequences where you can’t see a way out for the hero, or the moment when the love interest has to come clean about lying to the heroin in order to win her heart, or that breathless heartbeat right before the couple’s first kiss.

As a writer, your reader’s emotions become ropes, and your story the force pulling on them. Not pushing, but pulling. Drawing them in, keeping them wondering how the guy can date two women on the same night and get away with it, or watching as the characters step farther and farther into the haunted mansion.

I remember reading Fellowship of the Rings for the first time. It was early in the morning and I was in my creepy basement on the treadmill. I only turned one light on so I could read while I walked. This particular morning I found myself in the section of the book where the fellowship enters the Mines of Moria. The prose is of course beautiful, the language masterfully chosen to set the air of fear, suspicion, and abandonment.

By the time the party reaches the room where Balin made his last stand, I was on the edge of my seat. They find the book and begin to read about how the dwarves were overwhelmed by the orcs. Then the drums begin.

Boom.

Doom.

My heart was pounding far faster than it should have been, and I kept turning the speed up on the treadmill.

Seriously, I was practically running. It was at that moment I understood what an author could make a reader feel with tension. How Tolkien slowly pulled on that rope, tightening it with each page while at the same time giving the characters just enough hope to keep them going.

This month we’ll be sharing some of the ways to put tension into stories. From romantic to action. There will be something for everyone. Stick around, it’s going to be good.

The Truth About Dark Fiction

The truth about dark fiction is very simple. It’s all about us.

I’ve always thought of myself, as a science fiction writer, clearly on the side of optimism versus doom and dystopia. As a kid, I was certainly a fan of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and their themes of human conflict, but I remember watching Star Trek with a different set of eyes. I only really appreciated Star Wars after traveling halfway around the world during high school. Star Trek pulled me in because it portrayed our current terribly flawed and imperfect society at its absolute theoretical pinnacle in the very near future. Even with the latest movies, in the alternate “Kelvin” timeline, that future world is a darker place than before, but that relentless optimism is there. If you look across the plethora of recent popular books and movies, there is a very strong lean towards darkness and dystopia. Why is that?

It’s very simple. We see the worst of the world every night when we turn on the news. Even the newscasts that end with that thirty-second “water skiing squirrel-type” video are full of dark, depressing themes. It’s no wonder that it calls to us as writers. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic dystopias are easy to imagine because all we have to do is turn the creative knobs to eleven or twelve and our worst fears are easy to explore. The truth of dark fiction is very simple. It’s a reflection of our society, and in some cases, how we view our future selves in the worst way possible. And as writers, it’s pretty damned easy to wrap it around us like a blanket.

Let’s be clear, I’m not disrespecting dystopian, apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic fiction. Nor am I saying it’s easy to write and build these worlds. I’m discussing something that writers sometimes fail to notice – our own attitudes seep into our writings. When we’re convinced the world is a terrible place, it’s a little easier to write dark fiction. When we’re happy, writing happy subjects is a little easier as well. Our own personal attitudes and emotions often come with us to the keyboard and until we understand it, there’s nothing we can do to mitigate their effects.

How do I mitigate those effects? Music. There are quite a few folks I know who couldn’t imagine listening to music while writing, but it really helps me leave things behind when I sit down to the keyboard. What music? Whatever fits the mood. For my novels, I usually create a playlist while I’m developing the early outline. Sometimes a song really captures the emotional vibe of a scene. Sometimes, I need a song (or three!) to get me into the mood to even look at the book again. Watching the blinking cursor of doom for a little while without music is almost certainly going to send me on a miserable writing time adventure. On those nights (when I do most of my writing), having that go-to playlist helps me put the day behind me and focus on the next 2,000 words I want to write. That focus, and understanding that the way negativity can crawl inside our heads, is critical.

But what about when I want to look into the darkness? Well, because of my own experiences, it’s even easier for me to capture that emotion than listening to music. I’ve blogged on Fictorians before about a life-threatening illness I faced in 2014. As I recovered, my own attitudes were dark and depressed and I wanted desperately to get back to polishing the draft of SLEEPER PROTOCOL, but I couldn’t. Writing just wasn’t a positive experience. Ironically, the two stories I wrote during my recovery were much darker pieces than I’d ever written before. When I need to get dark, remembering that experience and bringing that attitude to my writing is fairly easy. Experience, especially those that are dark and uncomfortable, helps us tap into dark fiction. I’d wager that our happy dreams and goals are equally powerful, but darkness tends to have a greater connection to us because we’ve lived through it or we are living through it at a given time.

But, we have to come up for air. Not everything is wine and roses in the real world, but we can’t let our miserable world drag us down on a daily basis. We have a choice to respond to every emotion, stimulus, and action we face daily. There are times it’s okay to delve into the darkness and craft the story that needs to be written. It’s human nature to explore the abyss, after all. Just don’t sit there staring for too long. The world needs you and your voice up here. Your characters need you. Dark fiction is all about us, but so is optimistic fiction. There’s no balance to it – it’s a continuum. We’re all out there somewhere. If you’re too far down the dark side and feel like you can’t slide back the other direction, please reach out. I’ll be happy to help.

“The Most Successful Bankrobber Ever”

Jack Foley.

The first time I met Jack Foley was in Elmore Leonard’s novel Out Of Sight. Elmore Leonard was a literary genius and his approach to storytelling and dialogue are two of my biggest influences when I write. You’ve probably been aware of his work (notably Get Shorty, 3:10 To Yuma, and the television series Justified to name a few). When I read Out of Sight, I immediately liked Foley as a character. But when the movie came out, something incredible happened. The movie version released in 1998 and was directed by Stephen Soderbergh. It remains one of my favorite movies and, in my opinion, the best of Leonard’s novels turned into film (in a tie with Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown – which I’ll discuss next month!).

Foley’s career bank robber with a good heart escapes from the Glades Federal Penitentiary in Florida and promptly runs into U.S Marshall Karen Sisco. In the commotion of the escape, they end up in the trunk of a Cadillac as Foley and his accomplice, Buddy, run. By the time we see this, we’re already in love with Foley. He is smart, good looking, charming as hell, and always has a plan. In the trunk of the car, lit by the reverse side of the taillights, Foley and Sisco have a conversation that feels as natural as one that you and I could have. In the midst of the dangerous situation, sirens and flashing lights close by, we’re pulled into their discussion as naturally as possible. By the time they got out of the car, and the rest of the tale unfolds, we’re clearly following both of them and wanting them to get together at the end of the movie.

In the movie, George Clooney plays Jack Foley and Jennifer Lopez plays Karen Sisco. With Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Michael Keaton, and Albert Brooks as some of the stellar cast, the movie is very true to Leonard’s novel.

So what’s the big deal? Why is Jack Foley a memorable character?

Flash forward a few years and Elmore Leonard’s sequel to Out of Sight was released. Road Dogs follows Jack Foley after his release from prison as he tries to build a new life for himself but keeps running afoul of shady characters out for money and blood. From the book Out of Sight, which is one of my favorite Leonard titles, I liked Foley’s character. However, seeing him played by Clooney so perfectly, as I read Road Dogs, I could not stop seeing and hearing Clooney in the role. That’s where Foley transcended being a likable sympathetic character into something different. Clooney’s effortless performance as Foley indelibly attaches his “aura” to the character. The likable, memorable character has become something else entirely through the visual medium.

There are a few movies that suck me in when I find them one television. All of them have something in common. A sympathetic, regular guy protagonist with a good heart trying to get by. All of those movies have been perfectly cast so that the main characters are indelibly etched into our minds. Seriously – could anyone other than Tim Robbins have played Andy in Shawshank Redemption? Clooney’s performance as Jack Foley did exactly the same thing. When written stories become films, so many times the elements the make the books vibrant and alive are lost. Sometimes, we cannot see a character in our minds as clearly as the movies define them.

But when a likable, memorable character is played by the right actor or actress – wow. And you all know exactly what I’m talking about. But is it the actor or the character that is memorable? I vote character. No matter the actor’s talent, commitment to the role, or appearance, the character is developed on paper and is the vision of the writer/screenwriter that the actor is to bring to life. When it’s done perfectly in a book, it resonates with us. When we see that on camera, it’s more than memorable. It’s legendary.