Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Building tension

I'm a big fan of the movie Heat with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. I watched it again last night and I noticed something I hadn't paid much attention to before.




There are two key scenes that change the course of the action.  One is the bank robbery.  DeNiro and his pack of wolves rob a bank, the alarm is sounded, and Pacino with his pack of wolves give chase.  The key scene starts when Pacino exits the car at the bank.




The firefight confrontation runs 5 minutes and 35 seconds. [If you cue it up it's 1:03:38 or so on the long version available on Amazon Instant view.  (there's more than one cut of this movie)]

At the end DeNiro and Val Kilmer escape in a car from a grocery store parking lot, and Pacino then hunts down the remaining pack member.


This is a scene of high tension.  We're glued to the action. In terms of movie time or screen time, the scene is very very long.


The second scene is the end of the movie. DeNiro is leaving the hotel, having dispatched "the Grim Reaper" with one of the best lines in a movie.



Pacino exits the helicopter, sees DeNiro's babe, and realizes he's back in the game.  DeNiro sees Pacino, and turns away.  From this point to the end of the scene: 7minutes.  (Cue: 13:42 from end)


The climax of the movie, the most tension filled scene takes LONGER than the previous action sequence by almost a full 90 seconds (an eon in movie time.)



The reason this is important for you, as a writer of novels not screenplays is the principal transfers:  the big action scenes are LONG, not short.  Tension increases with longer scenes.  I've heard editors say this over and over, but until I saw the movie (complete with a digital counter on my screen) it hadn't quite sunk in.


One of the things I noted in a manuscript very recently was the author got to the climax of the novel and solved everything in two sentences.  It felt very disappointing to have all that build up then, bam it's over.

Short sentences and long scenes build tension.

This isn't a rule, really it's more like something to gnaw on as you write. Or a way to pass off watching Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro as working.




23 comments:

Picks By Pat said...

One of the better excuses I've read for procrastinating as I try to finish my manuscript...Thanks! Oh, yeah, and that tension thing, that was useful too.

Richard Brune said...

Janet, this post is EXACTLY why I have followed and love following your blogs. I have been feeling around for the best way to construct a climax, (much more innocuous than it sounds!), and BAM, read the post, mind worked for five seconds, muse tinkled in my ear and my ending tapped me on the shoulder. Thanks!!

elliot said...

Now that's good advice.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

It's one of my disappointments when I read Moby Dick, strangely. All that build up, and then Ahab's death was two sentences (if I remember right).

I realize that it's strange to compare the two conversationally, and now my brain is trying to cast Moby Dick with the actors from Heat. Hmm.

Janet Reid said...

Jennifer, we're going to need a bigger boat.

Chro said...

My guess is that this has to do with the withholding of resolution.

If the protagonist is in a deadly situation, you have this nagging itch of, "Will they survive? WILL THEY SURVIVE?!" If the tension is immediately released, then there is no chance for build up, no extended agony as you turn pages to see what happens next.

Tension is an extended stretching or straining. For it to be over in two sentences is less tension and more of a startling yank.

Janet Reid said...

Chro, I like this description a lot:"Tension is an extended stretching or straining. For it to be over in two sentences is less tension and more of a startling yank."

[Of course, on my first read I thought you said yak, which was pretty hilarious but not quite as helpful.]

Michael Wulf said...

I remember the first time I watched Heat and actually feeling my heart race when the bullets started flying.

They did such an amazing job of building tension up to that point, avoiding any early confrontations to dilute it, and making everyone feel mortal and vulnerable.

And then, yes, it goes on and on without a moment of boredom.

Easily one of my favorite dramas.

shayaankhan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JeffO said...

It's great when you get one of those 'Ah ha!' writing moments while doing something else. I had one of those epiphanies about character development once while watching an early episode of Breaking Bad.

Kitty said...

I agree, up to a point. On the other hand, a good story can be ruined by dragging the tension out too long. Don't crank up the conflict and then drag it out; I'll burn out and quit. This is especially true if it's done with filler.

Back in 2005, Sandra Scoppettone talked about filler:
Did you know one is now told in their contract how many words you have to have? In this first draft I’m going to come up short so that I’ll have to make it up in the rewrite. This disturbs me because I never want to put in filler. I’ve spent my whole career learning how to write lean and mean. And I think I’ve accomplished that now. But if I have to get to the right word count by adding unnecessary words it will make me unhappy. This trend to get writers to make their books bigger is terrible, I think. When my agent was negotiating my contract she (at my request) got the publisher to come down in the count by 15 thousand words.

I don't know if contracting so many words (for novels) is still practiced, but I've encountered a number of books which read like they had been larded with filler. Most of them were good stories, too, in which the writer tripped up the tension and interrupted dialog with useless, maddening description.

Elissa M said...

Tension is why a violin string sings.

Tightened too little, it's out of tune. Tightened too much (like an abrupt plot ending)-- it breaks.

Janet Reid said...

Kitty, I agree with you but we're not talking about filler here. My first requirement is that every sentence develop character or move plot forward. Filler doesn't do that so out it goes.

And Elissa, I love that comparison.

Steve Stubbs said...

Excellent post. All your posts are excellent (suck up alert here) but this one really is good. Two of my favorite actors, too. I have to see the movie now.

Kitty said...

This is what I'm talking about. I read this passage just this afternoon. It's from a book by a very successful writer whose books are made into movies.

*Mr. Detective* leaned forward now, joining in the circle, less of an outsider looking in. "As I see it - " his voice was hesitant and still so quiet that she struggled to make out the words - "*Dead Body 1* was the blackmailer. His blackmail victim was the killer. And *Dead Body 2* guessed what was going on."

What I deleted was filler, and redundant at that. It doesn't move the story forward. On the contrary; it kills momentum and drives me crazy. Here's the leaner version

*Mr. Detective* leaned forward and said, "As I see it, *Dead Body 1* was the blackmailer. His blackmail victim was the killer. And *Dead Body 2* guessed what was going on."

James said...

This has a lot to do with how novels and films (screenwriting) handle time -- very differently!

In a screenplay, one page equals ~one minute.

That translates to timing dictated by how long something takes to actually accomplish (Yes, there are tricks to play with time -- Zach Snyder's speed ramping, James Cameron's SLO-MO) -- but for the most part, time on screen is actual time (or at least close enough to it that we buy the reality).

In a novel, you can stop and write pages on the smell of gunpowder as the bullet that forever changed your life left the chamber. You can tease out the entire event, making audience actually beg for exposition. (I'm not saying you should -- just that you can).

In a screenplay, there's no way to emphasize that this is the bullet that changed your life, other than actually showing how it changed/changes your life--which is generally the contents of an entire film.

On the flipside, films can build big moments and emphasize these with visual spectacle. Novels have a different mechanic. They slow down time. Important scenes are generally a larger page count in a book than in a screenplay.

The slow "talky" scenes that are incredible in HEAT only happen after there has been some sort of setup prior to them. The scene in the diner between DeNiro and Pacino where they are both fishing for info is a great scene. But it's only because we (the audience) know what both characters are up to -- and get to see how they are misdirecting one another.

In a novel, a lot of that needed exposition can be filled in on the fly to up the tension and stakes. (Again, doesn't need to be, but the ability to do so is there).

You also can't gloss over action in a screenplay the way you can in a novel.

The war raged. Many died. The war ended.

The above may be a perfect way to succinctly summarize an entire era in a novel -- but there's no way to visually depict that in a film. It needs the bits and pieces (or at least 1 scene that somehow sums up the sentiment).

Manipulation of time and when/where information is revealed to characters/audience/readers is what creates suspense.

How each medium handles this is very different. A 5 minute scene could amount to 100 words. 5 pages in a novel is generally (250X5) 1250 words. They can literally be describing the same action, creating the same tension, but how they handle the page is very different.

James said...

This has a lot to do with how novels and films (screenwriting) handle time -- very differently!

In a screenplay, one page equals ~one minute.

That translates to timing dictated by how long something takes to actually accomplish (Yes, there are tricks to play with time -- Zach Snyder's speed ramping, James Cameron's SLO-MO) -- but for the most part, time on screen is actual time (or at least close enough to it that we buy the reality).

In a novel, you can stop and write pages on the smell of gunpowder as the bullet that forever changed your life left the chamber. You can tease out the entire event, making audience actually beg for exposition. (I'm not saying you should -- just that you can).

In a screenplay, there's no way to emphasize that this is the bullet that changed your life, other than actually showing how it changed/changes your life--which is generally the contents of an entire film.

On the flipside, films can build big moments and emphasize these with visual spectacle. Novels have a different mechanic. They slow down time. Important scenes are generally a larger page count in a book than in a screenplay.

The slow "talky" scenes that are incredible in HEAT only happen after there has been some sort of setup prior to them. The scene in the diner between DeNiro and Pacino where they are both fishing for info is a great scene. But it's only because we (the audience) know what both characters are up to -- and get to see how they are misdirecting one another.

In a novel, a lot of that needed exposition can be filled in on the fly to up the tension and stakes. (Again, doesn't need to be, but the ability to do so is there).

You also can't gloss over action in a screenplay the way you can in a novel.

The war raged. Many died. The war ended.

The above may be a perfect way to succinctly summarize an entire era in a novel -- but there's no way to visually depict that in a film. It needs the bits and pieces (or at least 1 scene that somehow sums up the sentiment).

Manipulation of time and when/where information is revealed to characters/audience/readers is what creates suspense.

How each medium handles this is very different. A 5 minute scene could amount to 100 words. 5 pages in a novel is generally (250X5) 1250 words. They can literally be describing the same action, creating the same tension, but how they handle the page is very different.

Michael Seese said...

"One of the things I noted in a manuscript very recently was the author got to the climax of the novel and solved everything in two sentences"

So it was a "Star Trek: Next Generation" ending?

Stuart Neville said...

Heat is one of my favourite movies ever, specifically because of the pacing and the writing. The performances are top notch too, of course, but they're using the material as a springboard - without that great writing, you don't get the meat for the actors to chew on.

What particularly impresses me about this movie is that it TAKES ITS TIME. That happens so rarely these days. The first hour has some action beats, but it's mostly character development. We get to know Hanna and Macauley as human beings long before the bullets start flying. By the time they meet in the incredible coffee shop scene, we ACTUALLY CARE what happens to them.

They're both also great examples of protagonist/antagonist being two sides of the same coin. Ostensibly, Hanna is the hero and Macauley is the villain, but we're actually rooting for both. We want Macauley to get away with it. We want Hanna to catch him.

I paid a cheeky tribute to that coffee shop scene in my first novel, but instead of downtown LA, mine takes place in a toilet in Belfast.

donnaeverhart.com said...

Your post couldn't have come at a better time for me.

I've been told to write a suspense novel - i.e. something more commercial. I mostly read lit fiction, and so, I tend to write lit fiction. I'm learning as I go along. This post has made me realize I'm guilty of throwing my MC into a situation and then , scene ends. Plus, it revealed to me how I sometimes resolve a scene by having one of my other characters leave the room. (Probably b/c I personally don't like conflict and that's how I resolve things sometimes)

Because of this post, I'll be going back and looking at ways to extend some of these scenes.

Great post.

JD Paradise said...

Here's my question, though.

The longer a scene goes in a movie - when things are moving past us literally at the speed of light - the more we're aching for a resolution to whatever conflict the scene encompasses, definitely.

But does the same necessarily hold true for prose fiction? At some point, I think the tension turns into "c'mon, get on with it already." We don't have any distractions - no music, no color, no sound effects, no acting - to pull us through and build the tension. Instead, it's just black word on white page, and another, and another.

Which isn't to say that you can't milk a scene, but I don't know that length alone is going to be your friend in creating tension - at some point I think it just runs the risk of deflating like a bad souffle.

nightsmusic said...

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, in their Pendergast series, do this perfectly at the end of Cabinet of Curiosities. By the time you get to the climactic end of the major action scene, you feel completely rung out. And the scene takes place over a series of chapters, all written in such a way that they ebb and flow which is why I think one feels the way they do by the end.

Steve Stubbs said...

JD Paradise: if you don't understand how the concept is used in a novel, read Thomas Harris' SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. If you are not gasping for breath when Clarice Starling finally confronts Jame Gumb (who is based on a real serial killer) then you are not human. It's been awhile since I read it, but I remember lots of short sentences and extreme tension.