My favorite currently airing comedy is Brooklyn Nine-Nine. If you haven’t seen it, think 30 Rock but set in a police precinct in Brooklyn. My wife and I are wrapping up a rewatch of the previous seasons, and during one episode the other day I got inspired for where to take my post in a month about tension. Comedic tension has a different emotional affect upon the audience than dramatic tension, but many of the core mechanisms at work are the same.
During the episode, NYPD detectives Jake and Amy offered to dog-sit for Captain Holt, the stern-but-lovable head of their precinct while he was flying overseas. His dog-sitter was forced to cancel (because plot), and they didn’t want him to miss his trip. The only problem was they were already supposed to be looking after fellow detective Charles, who had received laser eye surgery and was therefore temporarily blind, so they brought him along with them. Hijinks ensue, namely that, after nearly starting a fire and leaving the front door open to let the house air out, the detectives allow the dog to escape, and Captain Holt is alerted to the smoke alarm via his home monitoring system and calls from the airport saying he’s coming back.
Big, broad comedy, in other words. Capably written (and acted in the case of filmed content), this sort of scenario, where the bad news just keeps piling up and up and up into an ever-more-improbable mountain of trouble, can be very effective. There’s certainly nothing revolutionary about the technique, but there’s a reason this sort of thing is done so frequently in storytelling.
Jake and Amy call in the rest of the detectives (at least the ones with major speaking roles in the show) and they all set about trying to find the dog and fix the house, while another character attempts to stall Captain Holt. Jake and Amy, in the course of looking for the dog, manage to lose Charles (still blind) as well. It’s the most basic tension-raising technique there is: put the heroes in a difficult situation and turn up the heat. So why even write about it here?
Well, because care must be taken. Remember up there when I said “ever-more-improbable?” That improbable bit can work for a comedy shtick bordering on farce, but if there’s any verisimilitude to your world, particularly in the case of dramatic tension, playing too fast and loose with endlessly ramping up the challenges your heroes face can totally wreck your reader’s suspension of disbelief.
This can manifest itself in a couple of ways. The first involves the sum total of the problems the characters face. I’ve heard advice to the effect of “put your characters in a situation where the reader can’t imagine how they could ever get out of it.” While doing this can make the eventual solution all the more satisfying, definitely make sure you can imagine how they’ll get out of the situation.
An example I like to come back to involves the main villains in the Mass Effect trilogy of video games (spoilers). The Reapers are a race of immense, spacefaring machines which wipe out intelligence organic life in the Milky Way every 40,000 years or so. In the first game, a single Reaper, left as a vanguard, is able to overcome a substantial portion of the combined might of the galaxy’s fleets, and even then is only defeated when the player character is able to deactivate its defensive shielding. As the entire Reaper fleet, which makes its full appearance in Mass Effect 3, is hundreds or thousands strong, the idea that the remnants of the galactic fleet, still in recovery from the previous battle, could defeat them would be a ludicrous nerfing of the threat, (kind of like what eventually happened to the Borg between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. Readers expect and even require a certain degree of heightened reality, especially in genre fiction, but there are limits. Aware of this, I was fully expecting some kind of secret Reaper-destroying superweapon to come into play in Mass Effect 3, and I was not disappointed in that prediction (though plenty of other people were).
In summary, make your character’s problems seem insurmountable, but not actually be insurmountable, unless you are going for a whole George R.R. Martin vibe.
The second problem of stacking problems for your heroes is trickier to manage, because it has to do with how many problems can stack before suspension of disbelief fails. Another piece of advice I’ve heard is that you can use coincidence to create problems but never to solve them. But I believe even this has limits, and unless being the literal most unlucky person in the universe is your character’s super power, tread carefully. As with many things, proper set up is key. Just as solutions shouldn’t come from nowhere, problems should be foreshadowed whenever possible. This carries a bonus feature for eagle-eyed readers of building additional tension, Chekhov’s Gun style. This can be blatant, in the form of antagonist or villain POVs, or more subtle, some minor but nagging issue the protagonist doesn’t have time to deal with right now because they’re so busy saving the world. The best advice I can offer for how to pick your problem piles is the same as Brandon Sanderson likes to use to describe the best plot twists: “surprising yet inevitable.”
Sometimes the old ways are best. Just because a technique has been done a million times doesn’t mean it can’t be done well–or that it can’t be done poorly. But do the work upfront and think through the ramifications of your pile of tension, and you’ll reap the reward in your reader’s sweat.
Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.