Tension is created whenever a conflict prevents a character from achieving a goal. This can be a force of nature, another character, or an internal struggle, such as the character debating what to do. Tension also helps to create a sense of pacing, the rate at which scenes progress. Generally an audience will perceive a low tension scene as longer than a high tension scene.
Within a fictional world, also known as a diegetic world, there are numerous plotlines, goals that characters work to achieve, conflicts the character works to resolve. Most stories focus on a single main plot, with numerous subplots in the background.
Over the course of a story the tension of a plotline fluctuates, rising and falling at various rates of change. The higher the tension, the more time and work the story has to spend earning that intensity. A story should only have a few instances of 10/10 tension, and never for very long.
Otherwise the audience becomes desensitized to the intensity and disengages. Many stories use multiple subplots to work around this problem. As one plotline declines into low tension, another plotline is increasing, counterbalancing each other.
Building with Anticipation
A conflict can either begin suddenly, or form gradually. If a conflict forms gradually the story can build tension through anticipation, using abstract and concrete signs to establish the impending conflict. The key is to not oversell the conflict, and always meet or surpass audience expectations.
Anticipation can be built through abstract and concrete signs. Abstract signs are vague and symbolic, while concrete signs are foreshadowing, when a character says or does something to imply future conflicts.
Portents & Omens
This is when the world offers abstract indications that hint at the general mood or tone of the story. Weather is the most common technique, with storm clouds to herald an imminent threat, raging winds to parallel a character’s downfall, rain to symbolize despair, sunlight to symbolize redemption, and a starry night sky to show peaceful contemplation. Signs can be as large as general famine, or a single animal or plant.
King Lear features a wild storm to symbolize the king’s break with the natural order, and his impending madness.
Foreshadowing is when the story uses small details to setup audience expectations. In Harry Potter, the characters are specifically told not to go to the east wing third corridor. Of course that poses the question, why? What’s up there?
Foreshadowing is a form of implied promise, keep reading and the story will show you the answer. There are always multiple ways to follow through on a promise, but it’s essential not to disappoint the audience. Once the story establishes an expectation via foreshadowing, audiences begin looking forward to the finding out the answer. If the story concludes without revealing the answer, audiences feel cheated, as if the story set them up to be disappointed. For this reason it’s important for the author to be aware of their promises, and make sure that they satisfy or surpass audience expectations.