How 2 Create Tension in Your Screenplay

Tension comes from two things.  You need to care about the outcome of something and you need to have uncertainty about how the outcome will be achieved.

The perfect example fuels every horror movie where a bunch of kids have foolishly got themselves into danger. So, if we care about the kids, we want them to get out alive. We also want to know how they're going to do it.

If we don't care too much about the kids, then we're not that bothered if they get out alive. It may be the gruesome method by which the psycho dispatches them that holds some expectation for us but it's not really tension.

Tension doesn't have to be huge and it doesn't have to involve life or death situations but it is a great driving force for any movie story. Think about the key principles of screen writing:

  • Set up the big question in the first few pages
  • Keep the audience guessing about if or how the protagonist will answer that question

In essence this is tension so an entire screenplay that really grabs its audience is built on tension.

Will the flawed detective solve the murder and realize he cares about someone again? And how will he do it?

Will Rose throw herself off the stern of 'Titanic' or is she going to realize her life is valuable and live it to the full? And if so, how is she going to do it?

Will Sheriff Brody kill the shark or will it kill him? And if he survives, how will he defeat the wet monster?

Tension works on a macro and a micro level. You can break a screenplay down into scenes and scenes can be broken into beats and beats broken down into lines of dialogue. Think of each element of a movie script as a vehicle for tension and a mini screenplay.

There are numerous books and courses that talk about classics like 'The Graduate' and the scene where Mrs. Robinson tries to seduce Benjamin. This is a great example of a mini screenplay in a scene. It starts with a question and two characters who change as they go through the scene and arrive at a conclusion after a tension-fuelled exchange. Check it out from the point of the above, it's a masterpiece. 

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