Dramatic Tension – Don’t Let Them Go (Part 1)

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Dramatic Tension

Clever concepts, genre staples, and rare characters can entice audiences, but without story-long dramatic tension, your screenplay will struggle to keep them engaged.

Screenwriting has one rule: thou shalt not bore thy audience. Even Neanderthal storytellers knew that boring a cave full of people meant death (figuratively, we think). Writers strive for audience involvement with every tool in the box, but particularly by getting them to care about the story’s outcome.

A reader or viewer’s “I-want-to-see-how-this-turns-out” sensation is a story’s dramatic tension at work. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a suspenseful actioner, a riveting thriller or a slow-burning drama, the more levels on which your script tries to wield story-long tension, the more chance it has of pinning its audience to their seats until the ending. 

Broadly speaking, there are three levels of dramatic tension: External, Internal, and Thematic. The first two will be discussed here and the third in a subsequent article.

External Conflict

Whenever we abandon a script or a film it’s usually because the outcome is too predictable, its themes are muddled or the protagonist hasn’t earned our involvement. Protagonists needn’t be “likable” for readers and viewers to care, but they must earn at least some modicum of our empathy or curiosity. Even the most reprehensible characters can have an admirable personality trait or an interesting quality. If we don’t care about the protagonist and what they are going through, the story will have a hard time making us wonder about the outcome. 

That’s really all tension is: an unsettling question mark hanging over the outcome of the protagonist’s struggle. A story’s main tension is generated by its main dramatic conflict, usually an external conflict. 

The basis for which tends to include: 

  • The Protagonist –– the person whose story it is.
  • Their Problem – the personal-chaos-inducing predicament foisted on them.
  • Their Goal – the perceived solution to that predicament.
  • Their Opposition – the forces preventing that solution. 
  • Their Motivating Reasons – that which will be gained or lost should the protagonist solve or fail to solve their story problem.

The careful arrangement of an external conflict’s primary elements, such as these, can pose a dramatic question for readers and viewers, eliciting an emotional anticipation regarding the uncertainty of the story’s ending: will the protagonist solve their predicament or not? The kinds of dramatic questions that external conflict generally presents break down into: emotional and intellectual.

Emotional dramatic questions stimulate emotional tension. Audience empathy, sympathy, or identification with the protagonist is fairly essential for this kind of tension to work effectively. It also relies on something meaningful being at stake (for the protagonist or for others) and on the story’s ability to genuinely convince the audience that good and bad outcomes are imminent – depending on the protagonist’s and antagonist’s actions. 

Emotional dramatic questions are usually very simple and begin with ‘Will…’ Will Clarice capture Buffalo Bill in time to save Catherine Martin? Will young Miguel escape the land of the dead? Will the stammering King find his voice? Will Ripley survive the alien? 

They can also facilitate tension in stories with more abstract character objectives: will lighthouse keepers Thomas Howard and Thomas Wake maintain their sanity?

Intellectual dramatic questions are more aimed at stimulating our rationale and logic. Beginning with ‘How, Who, Why, What,’ they’re effective in thrillers, mysteries and detective stories driven by the deciphering of puzzles. They also generate tension in historical dramas, biopics, and true stories where we already know whether or not the protagonist solves their story problem. Yet, we mightn’t know the personal struggles or events behind that known outcome. How did Solomon Northup survive 12 years in slavery? Why was Mark Zuckerberg sued by his best friend? Who were the African-American women behind John Glenn’s orbital flight? What happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Also, who happened to Jimmy Hoffa? If the protagonist is able to earn enough of our empathy or interest, intellectual tension can also span the entire series: why/how does Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman?

Mary Queen of Scots is about the 16th century rivalry between Mary Stuart of Scotland and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England, which culminated with Mary’s beheading in 1587. The film’s main trailer begins and ends with the question: why did it come to this?

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

“If I seek to help your enemies, ‘tis only because you pushed me to their arms.” Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots – written by Beau Willimon

As long as we relate to an aspect of the protagonist’s nature or intellect and provided something pretty meaningful is at stake, emotional dramatic questions captivate us deepest when the story vacillates between the convincing likelihoods of the protagonist’s success and their failure. On the other hand, intellectual dramatic questions are most absorbing when the story wavers between whether or not it will share the mystery’s most relevant aspects by the story’s ending. 

Give up the goods too soon and our attention goes elsewhere. Having said that, even if a story’s main tension is sustained and intensified throughout the story, it may not be enough to keep everyone sufficiently engaged.

Internal Conflict

For some writers, “internal conflict” conjures run-of-the-mill character development, e.g. the protagonist enters the story flawed and discontented, endures transformative difficulties, and emerges as a shiny happy version of themselves. Because positive character arcs are so common in cinematic stories, they risk predictability. Remember, there is a spectrum of inner conflict and change at your fingertips. 

Characters may evolve towards their higher or lower nature, for better or worse, hugely, moderately, or not at all. You may be writing an individual who is stagnant, never improving, or declining but enduring. What matters most is that a given protagonist’s particular inner conflict, or lack thereof, facilitates the story’s drama and theme. Internal conflict isn’t mandatory. However, if a protagonist has an inner struggle of any kind, it ought to elicit tension. Although internal conflict is hugely varied, its basis tends to include: 

  • A Protagonist’s Internal Issue – the dilemma or flawed state of being which is holding them back.
  • Their Inner Goal – the unity or ideal state of being towards which story events might be pushing them to evolve.
  • Their Opposition – the forces preventing that state, often their own fear or lack of understanding.
  • The Stakes – that which they, or others, will gain or lose if they resolve their internal predicament positively or negatively.

The careful arrangement of an internal conflict’s primary elements, like these, can create a tug-of-war within the character, straining them between a flawed-but-safe state of being, which won’t solve their internal issue, and an ideal-but-risky state of being, which might solve it. Provided something meaningful is at risk, a protagonist’s story-long vacillation between these two states can invite us to wonder: will they solve their internal problem or not? The kinds of internal conflict generally break down into: conscious and unconscious.

Conscious internal conflict concerns an issue of which the protagonist is painfully aware, often presented to them by the story. For instance, they may have to settle a moral dilemma or defend their belief against antagonism. With the protagonist’s well-being (and often more) hanging in the balance, their internal tug-of-war between positive and negative states of being (which could or could not solve their issue) can generate a heartrending tension. For example, in The Irishmanwill Frank Sheeran’s loyalty remain true to his boss, Russell Bufalino, or his friend Jimmy Hoffa? In Suffragettewill Maud Watts strengthen her radical principles or conform to an unjust world? In Flightwill Whip Whitaker come clean about his addiction or keep lying to himself and others? When the story has us hoping for one outcome and genuinely fearing another, it’s got us.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

God help me.” Denzel Washington in Flight – written by John Gatins

Unconscious internal conflict concerns an issue the protagonist can barely discern. They mightn’t see how they’re constrained by a limited understanding, a negative quality, or by the trauma of an emotional wound. 

Events of the story can push them to unconsciously evolve or decline, e.g. pressuring a fearful character to find their courage, or an honest character into deception. Their internal tug-of-war between these positive and negative states of being (which could or could not lead them to a better future) can generate an absorbing tension. For example, in The Lego Batman Moviewill Bruce Wayne open himself up to having a family again or forever remain a narcissistic loner? In Gravitywill Ryan Stone let go of the grief and guilt of losing her daughter, or be eternally bound by them? In Prisonerswill Keller Dover return to decency and morality before torturing his captive to death?

It doesn’t necessarily matter if the ending turns out to be heroic, tragic, or anything in between. It’s the struggle that stimulates tension. In order for that tension to excite our hope and fear we must have some empathy or interest in the protagonist, neither outcome must be a foregone conclusion (the story must credibly present the possibility of either) and the stakes ought to be clear and perceivable. For instance, does the story demonstrate that the protagonist will be irreversibly condemned to an unfulfilling existence if they don’t change their ways (or maintain their ways, depending on the nature of the internal issue)? Even plastic protagonist Lego Batman’s flawed-but-safe state of self-imposed isolation invites us to hope that he will evolve because he has no one, not even an archenemy.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Batman doesn’t do ships. As in, relation-ships. There is no us. Batman and Joker are not a thing. I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. You mean nothing to me. No one does.” Will Arnett in The Lego Batman Movie – written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Whittington

As with any type of character struggle, escalation is important. Giving the protagonist more to lose throughout the story helps to stoke audience engagement until the resolution, where dramatic questions are answered and tensions are settled – unless the story deliberately leaves its protagonist teetering between success and failure, like the ending of

The Italian Job (external conflict) or Shame (internal conflict). When crafting a satisfying resolution to conflict, it’s best to be surprising but logical. Not an easy feat. Be too logical and the ending will be predictable. Too surprising and it’ll be disconnected. When deciding how best to end the story, it’s worth keeping theme in mind.

In part II, we will explore how thematic conflict helps to clarify what a story has to say and can generate a deeper, more meaningful level of story-long tension.

Read more about creating tension in your screenwriting HERE.

Series NavigationDramatic Tension – Don’t Let Them Go (Part II) >>

Patrick O'Driscoll

Contributing Writer

Patrick O’Driscoll is an Ireland-based script editor and funding assessor.  His narrative expertise is sought by writers and producers on projects of all genres and formats from around the world.  Patrick also consults for Irish and UK funding bodies on financing fiction and non-fiction, domestic and international, TV and film productions.  In either role, his guiding focus is on quality of content.

Improve Your Craft