Seven Ways to Build Tension in Your Writing
The following clip from the film, “No Country for Old Men,” presents an honors class for writing an unforgettable scene.
In this brilliantly acted and directed scene, we find a masterpiece of suspense. It builds slowly and inexorably, and the viewer is filled with dread. Joel and Ethan Coen directed this 2007 film and adapted the screenplay from a novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Without histrionics, profanity, special effects or violence, the director and the writer work together to lure the viewer into their web.
Javier Bardem is a man whom the viewer knows nothing about except that he is paranoid and insane. He is reminiscent of Robert Mitchum’s character, Max Cady, in the 1962 film, “Cape Fear.” Both characters are without any hint of redeeming qualities and men with whom you instantly feel uncomfortable.
Unlike Cady, Bardem’s motivations are impossible to read, which makes them more disturbing. He steals a car and stops to buy some gas. Veteran character actor Gene Jones is perfectly cast as the proprietor of the store.
Let’s see how they do it and make application to our writing.
1. Tighten the tension with silence.
On the screen, music is a guide. Yet, in a scene of suspense it can become the musical version of a laugh track. The ancient idea of music spiking with the suspense makes viewers lazy. They fade out and snap back to the action when the music alerts them. Without the music, the viewer loses the place-card and must focus exclusively on the scene before them.
In our writing, we can distract the reader with our choice of vocabulary, background action, and a host of other things. When we write suspense, we need to slow down and create a vacuum around the characters in the scene so the reader is lured in.
2. Control with claustrophobia
The small room where Bardem and Jones stand has several windows. Yet, the viewer still feels the room become smaller as the coil tightens.
We can see the outside world behind Jones, and his separation from it has psychological benefits. If their conversation took place outside, it wouldn’t be as frightening because Jones could flee in any direction. Yet inside he is alone with a predator.
Bardem’s intelligence and control take even more air from the room so Jones has less of it at his disposal. As the victim, we cannot think rationally, and Bardem knows exactly how to slowly wrench that control from Jones’ hands.
Bardem’s soft, slow voice is perfect. It enhances the suspense and grabs the viewer so they must listen more carefully. This doesn’t work as well on the page as it does the screen, however the writer can set this up by mentioning his slow cadence earlier in the story.
The intelligence and self-control of the antagonist is crucial to a good plot.
3. Create a hint of escape.
The only crack in Bardem’s icy composure is when he appears to choke on a nut. For a fleeting second, the viewer hopes that the victim will escape. Build too much hopelessness into a scene, and it becomes a spectacle instead of suspense.
4. Less is more.
The true power of this scene is how sparse it is. Bardem says nothing about himself and stays quiet to judge his prey as he studies him very carefully. Writers should take this to heart.
Suspense comes more from the undertones rather than the dialogue. The spoken word should hint, then dart away leaving the reader to supply their own. Leave their minds racing to fill the void, and it draws them into the scene even more. Hitchcock did this perfectly in “Psycho.”
This point is exemplified by the moment when Bardem drops the wrapper on the counter and everyone watches it slowly unfurl. That is more frightening that any scene of violence.
5. Have some missing pieces.
Bardem is working on a completely different plan than Jones and the less Jones knows the better. Bardem is completely in control. Jones wants to please his customer so he is restrained by the code of retail. Jones’ intrigue intensifies as he tries desperately to figure out what is going on.
Since the viewer knows more than the actor, we are more fearful for his safety. The coin toss is brilliant because only we know what happens if Jones loses because we know what Bardem is capable of doing. While we are afraid, Jones is baffled and will never know how close he came to dying.
6. Make it real.
We need to write scenes based on how people would act. Jones’ reactions to the fear are normal and that enhances the scene because we have an everyman faced with a monster.
7. Leave something behind.
The filmmakers leave Jones with his life and a coin. We are left with relief and a reminder that our lives are likewise very fragile. Jones was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that makes it all the more frightening. We can lose our lives so easily in a violent world.
Movies and literature can remind us that we are always within a hairbreadth of death at all times. Subsequently, we should value our lives and loved ones more every day. That is a valuable lesson and a necessary take-away for writers to leave for their readers.