Monday, July 16, 2012

The Science of Art: Dramatic Tension




Only just discovered today, author John Perich outlines a formula for tension at his blog, Periscope Depth:
Every story needs tension. Every story except the truly experimental needs to instill anticipation in the reader, to keep them turning the pages. Even those abstruse literary novels that are adapted from tales everyone knows (like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) contain some tension, in the mystery of “how is he going to address this issue?” if nothing else.
Go read what he has to say.  There are some great observations on how to build tension in a story, observations that are certainly relevant onstage.
 
I discovered John's blog thanks to a link in a footnote to his blog:
 
Footnote:
* Googling “tension = uncertainty x stakes” yields this review of Circus Vargas. I swear I hadn’t read it before writing this post. Since people who know me know that I’m the last person on Earth who would actively seek out circus reviews, I think I can lay claim to an original thought here, or at least parallel development.

Ha!  I love the internet.

 
For those of you too lazy to click through, here's the salient quote from my review of Circus Vargas:
The circus is Expectation + Uncertainty x Stakes. Or something like that. Or put another way, dramatic tension is the play between expectation and uncertainty. The stakes elevate the dramatic tension to ... to what? I could do graduate work on this one point and be a happy man.

It should probably be "Dramatic Tension = (Expectation ± Uncertainly) x Stakes" or somesuch. 

Dramatic tension is caused by managing and manipulating the audience's expectations, and you do that with uncertainty, amplified by the stakes.  To use the example John provides, the tension we as an audience feel at the Sarlac Pit is generated by our expectation that Luke and Han and company will survive against the uncertainty of the moment amplified by the stakes.

Our formulas are not quite the same, but John is close.  He's only missing the interplay between expectation and uncertainty, but I think he intuits it.  He writes:
Uncertainty is distinct from risk. Risk is a known quantity, like the odds of sevening out in craps. It means you can predict the outcome and make an informed decision. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity. There’s a difference between not knowing how the dice will come up (risk) and not knowing what you don’t even know (uncertainty).
Perhaps for a thriller, the formula would be "Dramatic Tension = (Risk ± Uncertainty) x Stakes".  The protagonist sticks his or her neck out in a calculated risk, for instance, when Jake Gittes breaks into the reservoir in Chinatown.  He's confronted by knife-wielding thugs (uncertainty -- what the hell are they going to do with that knife!?) and the interplay is amplified by what Jake Gittes has at stake (his life).  Perhaps for a thriller, risk is the expectation.

I'm totally down for calling this parallel development, so long as it's referred to as the "Moore Perich Equation." I like top billing. ;-)

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