Monday, July 18, 2011

Drawing the Thrills

Fear, Thrills, Excitement…

As with any ride that is artfully crafted, participants are intrigued by the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next. The steady pressure of this anxiety, this fear creates a tension and through it a suspense that drives the narrative forward.

"Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win." - Stephen King

The suspense may drive the piece forward but without a release the characters and audience will be too fatigued by the end of the piece to enjoy the ride. Many seek out thrills to experience that rush, the race of their heartbeat, the fear of the unknown and the feeling of relief that comes once they've overcome that obstacle. It is a psychological need to understand, a fascination with that which they can not comprehend because it is so different from our everyday lives. That fascination stems from a need to find out how much fear the individual can tolerate and ultimately the sense of satisfaction that comes from being able to endure that anxiety.

In a roller-coaster it is the anxiety of not knowing what comes next that makes the ride so appealing but it is the excitement that makes the ride satisfying. The longer the anxiety is permitted to build, the more tension the participants will feel and by extension the greater the satisfaction will be for the release of that tension.

While the tension of a ride may continue to build the conditional stress experienced is still subject to the individual's tolerances for prolonged anxiety. This means that while a ride may layer anxiety and tension to keep applying pressure the individual has physiological tolerances to that stressor. The individual can become exhausted and in terms of a narrative this means they will put the story down. Exciting moments are release points for the tension. If the excitement does not address the current anxiety or tension in any way then it will not serve as a release but another form of tension.

Thrilling moments are derived from an equal balance of anxiety and the satisfaction of that release. Like a roller-coaster, if the ride climbs to an epic height the drop, excitement, should be of equal height unless there is a need to keep partial stress. This can mean a greater satisfaction from the climax of the ride however, it also means greater chances of fatigue along the journey.

Thrills are created by provoking emotional anxiety both for the character and the reader through exploring that which they can not understand. What is it like to have someone close murdered? What is it like the have two people fall in love with the same person? What is it like to catch a criminal? Stop a supernatural horror? People look to experience a thrill, something that they do not experience on a routine basis. To deliver that thrill, it needs to come in equal parts of tension and excitement. If you reduce the tension, the excitement will not have the same impact. If you reduce the excitement, the satisfaction will fade with it. The perfect thrill is one that is built with suspense and has partial releases (pay-offs) until the close.

Romance example: Antoine has a crush on Jayne but she doesn't know he exists. Antoine set about trying to get her attention. (Tension) After a period he finds a means of talking with her. (Partial-Release)  Jayne smiles at him passing in the hall. (Partial-Release) Mean Ex-BF threatens Antoine, they walk away together. (Tension) Antoine confronts EB. (Tension) Jayne admits she's in love with Antoine. (Release)

Supernatural Thriller example: Antoine discovers people are disappearing. Secretly has crush on Jayne. (Tension) Discusses with friends and friends confirm more disappearances. (Tension) Starts working with Jayne to find missing people. (Partial-Release) In-fighting about how to proceed as friends disappear. (Tension) Find clues about disappearances, in-fighting between them due to tension. (Partial-Release, relationship tension) Antoine admits crush to Jayne, interrupted before Jayne can react. (Tension) Antoine saves Jayne form supernatural threat. (Partial-Release- still relationship tension) Together they stop the threat and Jayne admits to being in love with Antoine. (Release) 

Ultimately, if you build too much tension without at least a partial release it is akin to queuing in line for hours to get on a roller-coaster that goes down one dip and dumps you off at the gift shop.


Michele Shaw said...

LOL, Love that last line! Agreed, a little anxiety is good, but everyone needs to breathe:)And don't even say, *whispers* "put the book down." Egad, a writer's nightmare! Thanks for another great post, Phil!

K.M. Weiland said...

Good post. This is a point that many beginning authors (and some experienced ones!) overlook. To be suspenseful, suspense must be rhythmic. A constant flow grows boring without a counteracting ebb. Just like a comedian timing his punchline after a long pause, suspense also has to hesitate in order to deliver its full impact.

Anonymous said...

Terrific explanation of the differences between the various types of conflict/tension we know must exist to some extent in every scene of our novels. I particularly love your last line: "... goes down one dip and dumps you off at the gift shop." Wonderful! Thanks for this, it's bookmarked.

Take care,

Delaney Diamond said...

Great post, Phil. The key for an author is mastering the rhythmic flow of tension (or conflict) and release. The analogy of a roller coaster ride is perfect, and like the others, I love your closing statement.

PW.Creighton said...

Michele, exactly it. Reader fatigue mean putting the book down, and possibly never picking it back up. Thanks for stopping by.

KM, it really is about the rhythm. No one wants a roller coaster that only goes in a straight level line. Timing and remembering to release the stress are paramount to success of a piece. Thanks for the comment!

JC thanks for stopping by and the kind words.

Delaney thank you for swinging over. It's all about the ride, everyone wants a thrill not transportation.

Jean said...

Phil -- Great post! Yes it is all about the rhythm and flow of tension and excitement. It's quite a job measuring those and keeping them in perfect portion. Thanks for your insights.

PW.Creighton said...

Thank you for stopping by Jean.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Yes! I read someone's (I can't remember who now darn it) example of why Vampire Diaries works so well. It's the constant build up AND release of tension. They solve the problem usually fairly quickly, but introduce yet another at the same time. That really stuck out for me.

PW.Creighton said...

Lisa thank you for stopping by, if you watch close with any series you'll see that same pattern. It is about the build and release.

Julie Musil said...

LOL at that last line. Disneyland does the "dump at the gift store" thing. Ugh.

You are so's all about balance and pacing. It's a skill I'm still working on!

Anonymous said...

Alfred Hitchcock once said, "A bomb explodes under a table- that is excitement. A bomb ticks away under a table- that is suspense."

PW.Creighton said...

Eeleenlee, excellent quote, thanks for stopping by!

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