Building tension

To keep audiences engaged, stories build up tension. Building tension is demanding and challenging to create.

Consider the structure of a typical story:

Resolution (end)
Conflict (middle)
Character (beginning)

Now look at the structure of a longer form story:

Resolution
Crisis
Conflict 4(+…)
Conflict 3
Conflict 2
Conflict 1
Character

To build tension, the story is driven by a topic or theme. That topic or theme must be strong enough to support this demanding structure. Not many topics can deliver on that, and that’s why so many stories fail to build tension for the audience.

Conflicts get progressively worse

The topic must be deep enough to have several inherent conflicts. The conflicts themselves are very special: they get progressively worse as the story unfolds. As each new conflict is introduced, the stakes keep rising, putting increasing pressure on the character.

Crisis/breaking point

By the crisis or breaking point, the situation for the character is unbearable, with the highest possible stakes. The tension is constantly ratcheted up until the breaking point, with the final outcome truly in doubt until the last moment.

For the character, each conflict is a “test”, for example a task that must be fulfilled. And each time the character faces the test, he fails it. Each failure is followed by a new conflict, and a new failure. By the breaking point, things should seem pretty hopeless for the character. How will he ever get out of this?

Resolution
Crisis
Conflict 4(+…) (failure)
Conflict 3 (failure)
Conflict 2 (failure)
Conflict 1 (failure)
Character

Long form story structures are resonant and appealing to audiences because life they are true to life, in the sense that to be a human being is to fail at something. Many of the audiences’ own personal stories are about struggle and failure (along with joy and happiness, of course!)

That’s why, if the topic is deep enough, and the character is strong enough, and the conflicts are organized well enough, audiences are compelled to go all the way, to find out what really happens in the end. Long form stories mirror life.