Writing Tension in Screenplays: Learn from 10 NAIL-BITING Scenes

Writing Tension: The Difference Between Shock and Suspense

Take an ordinary scene where for five minutes three people are sitting around a table talking about their day. Suddenly, BOOM! A bomb is detonated that destroys the entire building and the audience is treated to five seconds of shock. That is not how you create tension in writing.

However, if you take the exact same scene and show the audience the bomb under the table before the characters have even sat down, everything changes. The audience listens to every word the characters speak, hangs on every action they make and anticipates what is going to happen. Now you’ve got your audience right where you want them.

That is the difference between writing shock and writing tension. Tension is vital in any story. Audiences want to feel excited when they watch your film. They want to emotionally invest in your story, the characters and the scenes. The most efficient way to elicit this response in your audience is through tension.

Writing tension in your screenplay effectively ensures an audience’s anticipation of the future of your characters and the outcome of your plot.

To demonstrate how a screenwriter can compellingly create tension for an audience, this article will be examining ten famous scenes from film and TV. Through them, you will gain a greater understanding of how tension can ebb and flow within a scene, how it can heighten the stakes of your screenplay and ultimately how it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.

1. The Farmhouse Interrogation (Inglorious Bastards)

writing tension: inglorious bastards

During the opening scene of Inglorious Bastards, Colonel Hans Landa goes to a farmhouse that is suspected of hiding Jewish refugees. Once there, he spends the next ten minutes interrogating the owner with polite conservation over a glass of milk. However, by providing the audience with little pieces of information, Tarantino manages to turn a simple chat across the dinner table into one of the most suspenseful scenes in recent cinematic history.

Tarantino utilizes two particular elements of writing tension in order to craft the scene. They are instability and dramatic irony.

Instability to Create Tension

Instability creates tension in the audience. This persists until the conflict is resolved and replaced by a more stable state.

  • Tarantino begins the film with a brief portrait of what life is like for the people of the farm. The father chops wood in the field whilst his daughters do laundry. This paints a picture to the audience of their everyday stable lives.
  • Then, the appearance of the Nazi soldiers pushes the audience into an unstable state that needs to be resolved.
  • When Landa enters the house and starts to ask for permission to do things, the instability is increased. The audience knows Landa is the one who controls the scene but he keeps playing mind games with the farmer.
  • This confuses the power dynamic between the two characters for the audience, which increases our instability and therefore the tension.

Dramatic Irony to Create Tension

Dramatic irony is where the audience knows information that the other characters do not. This refers to the previous example of the bomb under the table. When you tell the audience the most important information of a scene, suddenly it becomes an emotional experience.

  • The transition from an ordinary conversation to writing tension in the scene occurs when Tarantino shows the audience that there is a Jewish family hiding under the floorboards.
  • This is a big change that ratchets up our emotional investment. Every piece of information we know is intensified. We now know the Farmer has lied and that Landa is sitting right above his prey.
  • The tension changes from being in if Landa will find out to what will he do now he knows. The audience’s tension soon turns to dread. This is how you generate an emotional reaction.

2. The T-Rex Escapes (Jurassic Park)

Jurassic Park Tense Scene

When writing tension, you may be tempted to create a constant stream of ever-growing challenges and exciting situations that bombard your character throughout a scene. However, it is important to pace your tension to ensure the interest of your audience. While the big moments may grow until you reach the climax, along the way, there should be smaller moments of tension and ease.

Think of writing tension like stretching a rubber band. You stretch it to see how far it can reach. As long as that rubber band can stretch, the longer the scene can hold, the more suspenseful it is. But if you pull too hard too fast then the scene will inevitably break.

In the T-Rex’s first appearance in Jurassic Park, the audience is treated to little moments that help build the tension before the larger threat introduces itself.

  • The cars break down and lose power in front of the T-rex paddock.
  • The car mirror shakes and the water in the cups start to ripple.
  • The goat that was previously tied up has disappeared and its severed leg hits the roof of the car.
  • The electric fence begins to break apart and finally the T-Rex escapes in the climax of the scene.

Another important technique to highlight in this scene is a specific shot where the T-rex claws scratch at the 10,000-volt sign of the electric fence. Writing tension is attacking areas of safety for the characters. That is why most horror films are set at night. People feel safer in the light and so placing the characters in darkness increases the audience’s tension through fear.

By signalling to the audience that the one thing keeping the characters safe from the T-Rex is now broken, this plunges them into danger.

3. Buffalo Bill’s Basement (The Silence of the Lambs)

Throughout The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is on the hunt for notorious serial killer Buffalo Bill. In one of the film’s final sequences, her character has tracked him down to a house and chased him into the basement. Then the lights go out and the audience can only watch from Bill’s perspective (through night-vision goggles) as he stalks Clarice around the pitch-black room.

This short scene highlights another helpful tool that can be utilized when you are writing tension in your screenplay -lack of control.

The reason why the medium of film expertly lends itself to tension is because it’s a mode of storytelling where the audience has no control over what happens. For circa two hours, all an audience can really do is sit in their seats and watch as a character they sympathise with is placed into perilous situation after perilous situation.

Therefore, by removing all aspects of control for the character you increase an audience’s inability to influence the course of events. This leads to a greater experience of tension.

  • Once Clarice is in total darkness she has no idea where to go and no idea where Buffalo Bill is. She is completely helpless.
  • Then the filmmaker goes one step further and switches to the point of view of the killer. Switching POV to an unseen force is a great way to highlight a character’s lack of control.
  • The audience gets to witness first-hand just how powerless Clarice is as she helplessly claws her way around the room. Simultaneously, we feel the power Buffalo Bill has over her as he reaches out to touch her from the darkness.

4. The Underwater Heist (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation)

The easiest form of tension to create when writing a screenplay is the conflict between your character’s goal and the obstacles that stand in their way. In addition, your character’s pursuit of their goal would not be complete if there is nothing at stake for them should they fail. Stakes are what the protagonist struggles against, what they stand to lose if the antagonist is successful.

A guaranteed way to raise the tension in your writing is by manipulating the stakes of your character. At the same time, you can’t just simply raise the stakes so high that they become too unbelievable. If the world ends if your protagonist doesn’t stop the villain from enacting their evil plot you have not succeeded in writing tension. This is because, on a meta-level, the audience knows the world cannot really be destroyed.

The stakes need to stay personal to the character you are writing and the story you are telling. Take Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation as an example. Although these films seem like the highest stake action movies, there is another kind of tension at the heart of the series. There are small sequences that highlight quieter moments of conflict whilst also heightening the stakes for the characters.

Heightening the Stakes

writing tension: rogue nation

Perhaps more than any other sequences, heists present a character with an incredibly clear cut goal and a set of difficult obstacles. They create high stakes scenes whilst also keeping the audience guessing. They do this by taking an impossible situation and making it even worse. A heist scene in Rogue Nation features two very important elements of writing tension.

  1. The filmmakers set the clock ticking
  • The ticking clock is a tried and tested method of increasing the tension in a scene. Quite simply, it means imposing a time limit, either on the protagonist’s goal or the antagonist’s.
  • What is important is that you find a way to visually demonstrate the time limit that also communicates the growing stakes to the audience.
  • In Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt has 3 minutes to retrieve a file that is underwater. The audience sees this as a visual cue on his wet suit. In addition, the time limit also refers to the amount of oxygen he has.
  1. Everything must go wrong
  • Another great way to build tension in a sequence is to watch the characters fail.
  • In the Rogue Nation heist, several problems arise. Firstly, Ethan drops important tools he needs to steal the list. Secondly, the guards turn a water flow back on, so he has to use even more oxygen to fight the current.
  • Now that everything has gone wrong, the audience is glued to their seats, anticipating what could happen next. This demonstrates how thrilling it can be to watch characters improvise within established constraints in order to achieve their goal.

5. Battle of the Bastards (Game of Thrones)

Game of Thrones, Writing Tension

In the penultimate episode of season six of Game of Thrones, John Snow faces off against the antagonist Ramsay Bolton. However, before the battle can even begin, John finds himself racing into the fray to save his little brother (Rickon) from oncoming arrows. The filmmakers create a nail-bitingly tense moment.

They do this by subverting the audience’s expectation of the scene.

Film is told through a series of images. An audience understands one picture when it comes directly after the other. This forms a pattern. The most notable pattern we see in film is the rule of three. It shows up frequently in both storytelling and in our everyday lives. The ‘battle of the bastards’ subverts this filmmaking trope to create tension for the audience.

  • Ramsay is about to kill Rickon and the filmmakers are trying to create tension, so they don’t kill him with the first arrow.
  • They don’t kill him with the second arrow either. In order to break the pattern, it must be the third. That is what the audience is expecting to happen.
  • When it doesn’t, the audience is left unsettled and frozen in a state of confusion. What does this mean? Maybe there is hope that John can actually save his brother.
  • Then Rickon takes the forth arrow to the heart. By breaking conventions and using the audience’s knowledge of storytelling against them the filmmakers provide a prolonged moment of tension and false hope.

6. The Coin Flip (No Country for Old Men)

When a coin flip decides something trivial like which pair of pants you are going to wear today there isn’t a lot of suspense. However, if flipping a coin will decide whether someone lives or dies tension is created. The intensity of suspense is proportional to our emotional investment in what’s going on during the scene.

In No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers use the dialogue of their antagonist, Anton Chigurh, to increase the emotional significance of anticipated events. Writing tension can come from almost any aspect of your screenplay but when it comes from the antagonist it always proves more effective. This is because antagonists are specifically designed to pressure characters into making difficult choices.

Applying Pressure with the Antagonist

Before the scene has begun, the audience has already witnessed Chigurh strangle a police officer with handcuffs and shoot a man at the side of the road. So when the character becomes visibly annoyed by a store owner’s attempt at small talk, the audience is already beginning to anticipate a grizzly outcome.

The screenwriters then ramp up the intensity of the tension by making the antagonist apply pressure through dialogue. Chigurh takes control of the scene purely with his verbal responses. When the owner tries to end the conversation, Chigurh pressures him to keep going, issuing question after obliquely threatening question.

The antagonist now knows everything about the store owner whereas the store owner knows literally nothing about him. This information Chigurh knows puts him in a dominant role, backing the innocent man into a corner.

Throughout this whole scene, the audience is left on an anxious cliff-hanger as to how the exchange will end. The antagonist‘s pressure and rising action have exponentially increased their emotional investment. So when the coin flip finally arrives, they hold their breath waiting for the outcome.

7. The Ferry Climax (The Dark Knight)

Another great way of writing tension in your screenplay is to up the momentum of a sequence. Christopher Nolan accomplishes this by using the technique of crosscutting between various story threads to create tension and prime the audience for twists and revelations. In screenwriting, crosscutting refers to switching back and forth between scenes to give the impression that action occurring in different locations is unfolding at the same time.

Be warned though, crosscutting is an extremely difficult storytelling device to master which comes with its own set of unifying rules.

By taking a look at the climax of The Dark Knight as an example, you will learn how an effective crosscut can build the momentum of a sequence in order to create tension.

The Rules of the Crosscut

As the film hurtles towards its conclusion, the audience is following three parallel story threads.

  1. Harvey Dent is trying to punish commissioner Gordon by attacking his family.
  2. The Joker has rigged two ferries with explosives and given the opposing detonators to each set of passengers. If one of them doesn’t choose to detonate the other then the Joker will blow both of them up.
  3. Unless Batman can find him and stop him.

Across all three scenes, the filmmakers show the audience that there are clear and comparable stakes that unify each story thread. They not only understand that lives are in danger, they understand that lives are in danger right now.

In addition, Christopher Nolan creates an equality of urgency for each of the individual scenes. All of these problems need to be dealt with immediately. Both the ferry bombs and Batman’s search for the Joker feature a ticking clock counting down to midnight (when the Joker will blow up the passengers). At the same time, Dent has taken Gordon’s family hostage and he plans to kill them.

Finally, all three story threads are attempting to answer the same unified dramatic question. For this sequence in The Dark Knight the dramatic question is, will the Joker win the soul of Gotham city? Batman is literally trying to stop the Joker, the people on the ferries must resist playing his twisted game, whilst Harvey Dent becoming Two-Face is the Joker’s doing. All three story threads in the crosscut sequence directly relate to the dramatic question.

8. The Sound of Horror (A Quiet Place)

Sound always plays a particularly important role in the horror genre but it also serves as an essential element for creating tension. Whether it is through a nerve-racking score, a terrifying sound effect or just a noise that puts a character in danger. Why is it then that when a screenwriter sets about designing a scene they often pay little attention to the sounds that inhabit it?

Most writers assume that key sounds will be added in later during production. In many ways, sound is one of the most un-utilized tools in storytelling even though an audience experiences a film through two senses, sight and sound. Thinking about sound during the screenwriting process is important because it can be used to affect the emotions of the story.

Using A Quiet Place as an example, a film where sound is the most important element of the story, you will be able to see how the contrast and dynamics of sound can make and break a scene’s tension.

Contrast and Dynamics

When writing tension using sound, you may be tempted to either silence the scene with no noise at all or draw out the scene with loud bangs and bumps. However, if every sound in a sequence is written at a low or high volume from beginning to end it prevents any loud moment from being impactful. Therefore, the sound has to be written dynamically.

During a scene where Evelyn has to give birth whilst a monster is hunting for her in a house, the filmmakers contrast the dynamics of quiet and loud sounds.

  • The scene begins at a low volume and increases gradually over time. A photo frame smashes on the floor, then the room goes silent. Then the roar of the creature breaks the silence.
  • Evelyn tries to be as quiet as possible as the creature searches for her through the house. Finally, her family sets off a chain of loud fireworks so she can escape.
  • The fact that these shifts are so sharp is what makes them so impactful. As the sound builds, the tension builds until they both reach a climactic breaking point.

9. The Battle of Helms Deep (Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers)

Action sequences are a great way to create tension in writing. Has there ever been a greater action sequence put to film than the ‘Battle of Helm’s Deep’? Even in the chaos of the two large armies, Peter Jackson still manages to weave in an excellent moment of tension. This stops the battle from becoming just an incomprehensible clash of swords.

If each piece of action in a sequence is just a drop in a larger bucket, the audience will stop caring about each piece. However, when each piece of action is the exact drop that causes the next moment to begin, you start to form a chain of tension. The filmmakers use this technique during the ‘Battle of Helm’s Deep’ to show the audience exactly which way the tide of the battle is swinging.

They even get to witness little moments of wins and losses for both sides and this is all because of cause and effect.

Cause and Effect

In order to create a moment of tension within a larger battle, Peter Jackson splits the action into pieces of a pyramid.

  • The entire massive battle is the base of the pyramid.
  • One level above that, it gets narrowed down and the action is divided into two basic sides, Rohirrim and Uruk-hai.
  • The Battle is then broken up into two fronts, the walls and the gate. Taking it one step further, each of these two fronts is given a strategy, ladders and a battering ram.
  • Finally, in order to create a chain of cause and effect each strategy is given a lynchpin, so if they succeed the entire landscape of the battle changes.

This lynchpin is an Uruk-hai charging at a set of bombs to blow up the wall whilst Legolas tries to bring him down with arrows. It’s a single moment, with a single action, that has an opposing strategy that is immediately understandable. When accomplished, the effects flow down the pyramid, turning the tide of the battle.

This makes the audience route for every arrow Legolas fires, every step the Uruk-hai takes. That is how you turn a massive action sequence into a personal affair. You make it so that the impact of every tiny decision affects the wider picture.

10. Argument Over Dinner (La La Land)

Tension doesn’t only exist to create scenes of terror or dread. Although suspense often seems to permeate the action and horror genres, there is another category of tension that can be utilized to generate an emotional reaction from your audience. This is romantic tension. It’s fair to say, without tension, there is no romance.

So if you have decided you want to write a romantic drama or comedy, you have to know how to create tension between your two lead characters. This can stem from what is applicable to every screenplay in that you must show the conflict your central characters face in pursuit of their individual goals. With romantic tension, however, there is both an external goal for each of the characters and there is also an inherent need to love and to be with the ones they love.

That is the simplest and best way to write romantic tension, to create conflict between a shared goal for both characters and their separate desires. Looking at La La Land as an example, an audience is shown an argument between the two central characters which derives solely from the opposing natures of their individual goals.

  • Mia and Sebastian have been busy with work and haven’t seen each other in a long time.
  • Sebastian has been on tour with his band, trying to become a successful musician. Whilst Mia is preparing a play, trying to launch her acting career.
  • The audience can see purely through the dialogue that the two character’s lifestyles cannot work together as they struggle to arrange times in the future where they can be together.
  • They are both still fighting for their shared goal of being with one another in a relationship but neither is willing to give up their individual dreams.

In Summary

How Do You Create Tension in Writing?

Tension derives from the amount of information you choose to share. When an audience knows more than your characters do, they sit and wait for every word and action and are treated to a pure moment of suspense, rather than just shock.

The Difference Between Tension and Shock

Simply put, tension lies in anticipation, whilst shock lies in surprise. The two can be equally effective in their different ways but they are separate from each other, whilst often combining effectively.

The Best Tension in Screenwriting and Filmmaking

The best examples of tension in screenwriting and filmmaking occur when the creators in some way both fulfil and subvert audience expectations. They lead the audience on, making them expect an outcome. Then they either fulfil that outcome as expected, releasing tension, or subvert the expected outcome, further compounding the tension and morphing it into something like shock.

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This article was written by Stephen Harper and edited by IS Staff.

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4 thoughts on “Writing Tension in Screenplays: Learn from 10 NAIL-BITING Scenes”

  1. Thank you for this great article! One thing that I also have found out that is key to know if you are using theses elements correctly in a scene or sequence is if in the end, the scene or sequence just naturally flows from beginning to the end. Seems so natural and logic the way that for example, “The Battle of Helms Deep” (Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers) happens (one needs to protect, the other attack), but, if you take out just one single element, everything falls apart. Great stuff!

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