Blog Post

The Essence of Dramatic Tension

Oct 17th, 2016

Melanie Anne Phillips on dramatic tension:

In narrative structure, there are two forces that converge to create a sense of rising tension that culminates at the climax: the quest to achieve a goal and the increasing pressure to change a deeply held conviction. Each of these forces informs the other so that, ultimately, the choice to change one’s nature or remain steadfast in one’s views and potential success in achieving the goal depend upon one another. In some stories, success depends upon the personal choice. In other stories, one’s nature is determined by success or failure. But in all cases, the interrelationship between the outcome of the plot and the culmination of the main character’s growth, builds the potential that drives the story forward to its conclusion.

Defining it as the nexus between the Main Character Throughline and Objective Story Throughline, Melanie defines two key story points:

  • Main Character Resolve: the increasing pressure to change a deeply held conviction
  • Story Goal: the quest to achieve a goal

This is not an If..Then statement beginning with the Main Character's Resolve and ending with the Story Goal. A story doesn't always end in Success as a result of the Main Character's Resolve, but it very often does (Luke in Star Wars, Neo in The Matrix). Sometimes the nature of the Resolve is determined by the story's Success or Failure (Hamlet in Hamlet or Elliot in E.T.). The latter category of Main Characters often find themselves Changed by a story's events, rather than Changing to effect a story's events.