Tension (friction) and release is a critical factor in any type of creative script. There comes a time, even in humorous writings, when we need to produce an atmosphere of anticipation. When the reader knows that something is just around the corner to bring some sort of resolution to the current situation in print, their attention and interested is held and enhanced. Even when the resolution in question is one of horror rather than happiness, it is resolution nonetheless.
One of the master storytellers who used this tension and release tactic to great advantage was the late Alfred Hitchcock. In many of his stories, the eventual outcome of a suspenseful passage was known before the fact, but his ability to bring extreme tension to the moments before was truly inspiring. Many have attempted to duplicate his use of tension and release, but most often they fall into a pattern of presenting obscene amounts gore at the moment of resolution rather than concentrating on viewer (reader) anticipation.
Look at some of our most basic human responses to extreme settings in our world today. When we step onto a roller coaster and experience butterflies of anticipation it is not the thought of sitting in the chair or grabbing the padded steel safety bar that sets our stomachs in motion. It’s the thought of dropping from the first steep hill and the rush that comes with it, and the eventual letdown after it’s all over. To draw on that example let’s look at two different ways to get to the bottom of that first drop.
—- I stood in line, then got on the coaster with my stomach churning. The chain clanked and tugged roughly under the cars as we climbed to the top of the first steep hill. We slowly crept over the top, then flew along the track, picking up more speed with each nanosecond until weightlessness lifted our shoes slightly from the scuffed floorboard. I felt a dizziness overtake my senses as we plummeted deeper into the artificial abyss of wood and steel before pouncing on gravity once more. I felt the beginning of the next hill, and a slight left-hand roll in the greasy track below that turned us to face the lake next to the park.—-
Now let’s look at it again from the “lead-in” side of the moment, or the anticipatory side of things.
—- I stood in line, pausing now and then to look at the steel monster looming high overhead. Death could certainly result from any drop that high to the dusty ground below. Others in the line ahead of me talked loudly to overcome their own fears and concerns. Some stood quietly, trying to act cool and collected, only to have their trepidation exposed by beads of moisture collecting on the forehead and back of the neck, or massive sweat rings under the arms, even on this cool and cloudy day. The rattling of of the coaster cars jolted me back to the here and now as they arrived in the passenger station. Voices raised in volume as adrenaline releases took on varied forms for each person. Tears of terror were covered up by uncontrollable screams of laughter from another.
The line moved, inched forward. God, what am I doing, I thought? I don’t need to ride this killing machine. I felt the wind blow in my face, saw it sway the branches in the trees. I instinctively looked at the tie rods and braces on the coaster framework for signs of twisting in the architecture. It looked so flimsy, and I had heard stories of coasters collapsing enough to lose a car from the tracks. Rumors occasionally surfaced of passengers clinging to wheels and wires, hanging on for dear life. Most of them had been rescued, but the incidents were usually covered up quickly by park officials and town councilmen so as not to hurt the tourist economy, weren’t they? My mind reeled and I nearly panicked at the thought of being one of the few roller coaster fatalities, one of the infinitesimal percentages that are only posted on page twenty-four or thirty-six of local newspapers across the country. National news. That was to be my fate. Just a two line blip in a one column article of national news.
The coaster car rattled into the loading dock once more. I barely heard the voices this time. My movement was automatic, trudging toward my unknown, possibly deadly fate. Car number one. My vision blurred. The ringing in my ears almost drowned out the park assistant instructing me in the proper use of my the safety bar. Safety bar? Crash bar! Why don’t they call it what it is? It’s only there in case you crash isn’t it? Panic!
My heart pounded in my chest and reverberated through the torn and faded red vinyl seating below and behind. My senses began to return, slowly. A color here, a syllable there, rushing faster at my ears and eyes, turning anticipated fun into foreboding dread. I felt crushed under the metal safety bar, pressed into the seat, unable to move. I yelled internally for someone to release me.
Then the flood of sounds jumped on me, making my skin crawl. The car jerked and moaned, grinding wheel against track, chain link against hook, multiplied by each car in the train. My stomach swirled as we climbed. Ten feet. No . . . fifteen. I was going to be sick, throwing up on the shoes of the twelve year old sitting next to me. The little kid behind me began screaming at the top of his lungs, “I want off daddy, I want off daddy, I want off daddy”!!
Thirty feet up the track. The cars bumped on a metal weld and the chain dragging us to our doom lurched in response. I wondered if it would hold. Forty-five feet. Sixty, eighty, ninety-five. I could feel the framework swaying this far above the ground. The weight of the cars combined with the wind at this altitude would bring us to certain death at any moment.
The top of the hill came into view, pulling us like some demon into a hellish vortex of pain and anguish, closer, closer to the drop. Our lead car hung on the other side for a moment, a second or two, as if we were a raw chicken carcass teasingly dangled before the snapping jaws of some pet alligator. Those of us near the front could view the instrument of our demise before plunging into oblivion. Then it happened.
The momentum and weight of the following cars snapped us over the precipice with a whiplash effect, pulling the safety bar tight to my chest, crushing the air from my lungs. Wind rushed past my ears, muffling the screams of those about to die with me. A blurry tunnel of sounds and colors seceded to bottoming out in my chair as we reached the low point in the track . . . . and began a slowed ascent toward hill number two, over the lake. Lord, help me! —-
Okay, this is a little wordy, but some solid editing to streamline it to the needs of your characters and your plot and setting would do the trick for most writers. The point here is that the proper use of suspense and anticipation can do wonders for key, pivotal points in your story. Don’t overuse this technique and push it upon your audience. However, as in the example above, it could help the reader understand a character’s anxiety disorder and clarify his fear of heights which is related to a severe childhood trauma of watching his best friend fall from a tree and die. It’s a tool to help define and explain your characters, to develop them as realistic and plausible, even if they come from the planet Zepton and have three eyes.
Emotion and motivation are what develop characters and give them heart. Use anticipation within their realm and reality and you will bond with your readers.