The art of maintaining the attention of studio and agency readers and the subsequent attention of audience members is among the most challenging screenwriting techniques writers must master. Although there are hundreds of script techniques and writing methods geared toward this storywriting element, every script is unique and requires a more subjective approach. Throughout my professional screenwriting experience, I’ve found the most effective foundational technique to accomplish this goal is to precisely increase screenplay tension with the primary goal of building suspense and story intrigue.
Cultivating screenplay suspense and intrigue through character and scene tension is an essential tool within the screenwriters toolbox.
Utilize Character History
The history of each character does more than shape their dialogue. Past experiences provide an excellent platform for building and maintaining tension. This screenwriting element is applicable for not only tension in situations, but also deep tensions between characters. Within each of our lives, there is a moment within our past that when combined with other situations directly affects tension levels. Utilize the creative and diverse history of each character to add internal and external tension.
Anyone who’s had a relationship with another human, rather romantic or platonic, understand how intimacy with a person builds tension. This tension may come from interpersonal issues or through personal fears and worries felt by one or both parties. As a screenwriter, you must constantly look for ways to create tension within the inner circle of the main character. Remember, this tension may be positive or negative. Never allow your characters to live tension-free relationships as this is unrealistic and unrelatable to audiences.
Have you ever been in line at a fast food restaurant and all the orders are late. The growing number of hungry customers around the pick-up line increases external energies as the tension levels of all involved parties has a tangle effect. Utilize this human interaction truth by creating situations where the characters face an increase of tension. This doesn’t always involve situations where characters interact in a negative manner. Rather, situation tension may adopt a happy, worrisome, terrifying or angry facade.
The Hidden Tensions
In this manner, I’m not referring to tensions being obviously hidden from the knowledge of involved characters. Rather, I”m speaking of the tensions that are known to those involved, but willingly not discussed. Think of the old saying, “…ignoring the giant elephant in the room.” Input this type of interaction within appropriate scenes to create and maintain tension and audience intrigue.