When building tension, it's imperative to have high stakes within your story. It doesn't matter what kind of story it is. It could be a story about huge risks, like the end of the world or even the universe, or it could be a story about a girl and her imaginary friend- whether your storm is in the ocean or in a teacup, it has to be perfect.
But you might have set up everything just right, made the risks abundantly clear, shown what happens upon failure, and still…
…still, the audience may be bored. They may not feel the tension or the suspense.
That might be because they don't care about the characters. And it's through the characters that the tension resonates with the audience or the reader.
Tension and suspense is all about worry, stress about what might happen to characters we love or want to see succeed (or just survive). If we don't care about them, or even more, if we hate them, we might not care enough to feel worried about them. In some cases, characters are so annoying people are just looking forward to their death scenes.
What, then, must a character be or have in order to get the tension across?
1. They must be loveable.
That does not mean that only characters that are cute or affable or honey-dew impersonated are loveable. We might love to hate a character, or we might love them because they are a rascal, or imperfect, or struggling against terrible odds and still keeping it up. It doesn't matter why we love a character, we just need to love them, and not want them gone.
2. They must have little to no plot armor.
If the story is such that we feel confident that there is no way for main (or important) characters to die or fail, then even if we like them there will be little or no tension during a high stakes situation. The story has to sell that there is real risk involved. That the character can plausibly fail, and if he/she does, then consequences will be dire.
3. They must be seen struggling.
If the character is seen doing things effortlessly, then the tension again is low. Not only because they appear to be accomplished enough to deal with whatever problem easily, but because they don't seem to put in the investment, the effort in trying to achieve something. When the audience has worked for success alongside the character, then they will want him/her to get what they're striving for. Failure after a big investment hurts. And so the tension is mounting the more we know how much this means to the character we're rooting for, and how much they will hurt if things don't go their way.
How do you build tension in your story?
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The Characters Bring The TensionTantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Nov. 7, 2020
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Corruption at 5:48PM, Nov. 8, 2020
I see Character and how they relate to Plot in a way that can be summed up in 6 words (including repeated ones). "Characters enact Plot: Plot expresses Character." Among other things this means that you need to use the plot to express the true character of the people in the story, otherwise they are flat and lifeless. It also means the character brings their own issues to the story. For example, one character may be a white racist, and have to work with black person (Or Asian, hispanic or other person of colour if you want to avoid an overused trope. Maybe the white person is not racist, but they work with a black person who thinks they are?) This builds up issues and you see how they have to deal with things. Other issues may crop up, like a son of a former noble who hides his linage from his comrades raised in poverty may have to deal with hidding it, and lying to them. Just a few ideas from me.
usedbooks at 10:31PM, Nov. 7, 2020
A great comedy premise is for small stakes (big to the character) become or get overshadowed by bigger stakes. Like characters inconvenienced by losing their TV accidently get embroiled in biological warfare and terrorism. Or a man under threat of losing his house has his entire planet demolished.
bravo1102 at 7:14AM, Nov. 7, 2020
@Tantz_aerine: exactly. You know tension can be something as simple as realizing you can't find your keys and you have to go to work. Where did you leave those keys? The stakes don't have to be raised by dropping them down the elevator shaft, just that they're not where you remember them being.
Tantz_Aerine at 5:24AM, Nov. 7, 2020
Hushicho: It's ok, you don't need to agree with this. (See how tension de-escalates, Bravo? ;) ) That said, stakes are ALWAYS high-at least to the perception of the character/person. That is what motivates people to do something. It's basic psychology, and Used Books illustrated it well already. What they don't need to be is life-and-death stakes. If a writer feels they need to raise them every time to keep interest going, then they probably haven't set up the stakes very well in the first place. As for 'plot armor' it is defined as illogical protection from cause and effect in every situation. Not just in one occasion, as you mentioned.
usedbooks at 4:09AM, Nov. 7, 2020
But yeah, relatable characters are key to a story. You have to empathize and invest in at least one character. Watching Star Wars episodes 1-3, I had literally no emotional reaction to any of the events because of flat characters I didn't care about. The sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean had me feeling the same way as the former characters became charicatures of themselves. Having an unrelateable protagonist can work but only if you have a "Watson" character (and the protagonist should still be interesting even if not empathetic).
usedbooks at 4:01AM, Nov. 7, 2020
Stakes are relative. You don't have to have physical stakes or end of the world stuff. "Will the girl/guy reject me?" can be high stakes. Acquiring a toy for a Christmas gift can be high stakes. Alex Hirsch talked about stakes in his Gravity Falls commentary. He said the audience could be sure the characters would never come to physical harm, so for that series, higher stakes were those of interpersonal relationships. Would the kids stop trusting their uncle? Would the kids' friendship falter? Yes, there was no shortage of potentially deadly monsters about, but the relationships were the tension-builders because those threats were "real."
bravo1102 at 1:49AM, Nov. 7, 2020
Tension was just created there with hushicho's disagreement. No one is in danger, there's no chance of death-- but tension is there nonetheless. I'm invested in Tantz_aerine because she has struggled and has taken some hits in the past. And anything can happen on an internet forum. This doesn't need to ramped up, there's no need of explosions but it is tense.
hushicho at 12:47AM, Nov. 7, 2020
No, I can't agree with this. Stakes don't need to be high in every story, and most stories where they are, the writers find themselves obliged to attempt increasing them steadily...which exhausts the audience, who find it steadily less plausible. As for "plot armor", the concept had one, very specific, case where it was useful. It is not useful anywhere else. If you are prepared to dispense with any character at any time, you don't deserve and are unlikely to get reader investment. They might as well be watching an automobile accident. Tension and suspense are not skillfully or well built through simply endangering characters. That cultivates more frustration, more of the time.