Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How Do You Create Tension?

Last night, I watched two TV shows. One was brand new in Australia (Hot in Cleveland) and the other was just into its second series (Rescue Special Ops). I have to admit that I don't watch much TV these days. I suspect that five fantastic series of The Wire has kind of killed commercial TV for me! Although The Street (written by Jimmy McGovern and currently on ABC2) is so wonderful that it restores my faith in what is possible in television land. But after I watched the afore-mentioned shows last night, I got to wondering, as you do when you're a writer, why they didn't work.

And for me, it came down to tension. I think a lot about tension. I teach it in Story Structure, but I'm not sure the students really grasp how important it is yet - they're grappling with climaxes and outlines, but I think it does take a while to put all the elements together. Kristi Holl, who has written a lot of middle grade mysteries, has an ebook on Tension Techniques, and I've picked up lots of ideas from it. But really - what is tension? How do you create it?

Firstly, in Rescue Special Ops, I felt little tension at all. Very early on, there was a conflict between two of the rescue cops, and straight away I thought: One of them will save the other one's life to resolve this. Yes, I was right. And not happy to be right. It was way too predictable. Two episodes into Series 2, it feels like all the situational tension (rescues, death, survival) has been sidelined and the show has moved into competing with Packed to the Rafters (for readers outside Australia, this is like a slightly more grown-up version of the Brady Bunch or Full House!). Which is fine if you're writing a show about relationships.

I thought Rescue Special Ops was a police drama show, not a thing about romance and having kids and thwarted love, with a few explosions as a sideline. I am astounded that the writers and producers of this show have gone down this road! Do they think the only viewers in Australia are those who want soppy stuff? Hey guys, take a look at NYPD Blue sometime. And how they managed twelve series in which crime (hello?) was the key, and characters provided depth and colour.

So where do the writers of RSO seem to think tension will now come from? Yep, a cast of hot young actors who apparently all want to jump into bed with each other (just add sexy firies and more cops). The biggest moment of surprise came at the end of the episode where one of the rescue guys steps onto the street and gets run down by a speeding driver. Bang. No set up. No sense of anticipation. Just a dummy (we presume) smacked into the air and an actor lying on the ground. To me, this is fundamental stuff. Something like that in a story only achieves maximum impact when you set it up properly. The rest of that episode was not a decent, well-crafted set up.

As for Hot in Cleveland, the writers don't seem to understand that even in sitcom, we still want tension. We still want to be surprised. No surprises here, apart from how awful the writing was. I think I heard every tired old joke recycled. Tension can come from several things - firstly, from the reader/audience either knowing more or less than the character/s. It's especially effective when you think you know more and you're waiting to see if the main character works it out. Kind of like kids in a stage show shouting, "He's behind you!"

But it can also work the other way - you know less, and the narrator is keeping stuff from you. A good unreliable narrator, for instance, can create tension. If the situation is that you know what the main character knows, tension then must come from anticipation and surprise. You have to build up the tension, be aware of how it's working and have a good idea of what the reader's experience is going to be. Too often, a writer forgets the reader in this situation. The writer might forget to provide information, or not make things clear, or try to deliberately confuse. Or go for the quick pay-off, which is death these days in sitcoms. After shows like Frasier, some of us hope for more (but sadly, rarely get it).

I suspect this is why reality TV appeals, because even when a show is "scripted", you can't totally rely on the participants to "behave". I like a UK show called Relocation, Relocation, because even though people start out saying what kind of house they want, often they're wrong, or misguided, or have to face reality about finances, so you can criticise or be engaged, or imagine what you'd do if it was you. There's no plot, sure, but there is anticipation and the ongoing possibility of surprise. Like the Masterchef contestant whose dessert crashes and burns (hey, most of us have been there!).

Over the past few years, there has been a fair amount of comment about Australian scriptwriters, about the 'dumbing down' of TV drama, about the way in which only the ABC and the cable channels are prepared to take a risk on new writers and new ideas, while the commercial channels churn out the same old boring rubbish. But Packed to the Rafters rates, so what does that say about our TV viewing? That we get rubbish because we're happy to watch rubbish? Not me! I'm off to watch the next episode of The Street. You can catch two episodes on ABC iView if you like. Yeah!


Sheryl Gwyther said...

Excellent article, Sherryl. And I too love 'The Street' - I love anything by Jimmy McGovern, in fact! A few episodes of The Street have almost broken my heart, but have still uplifted it in the end. :)

Sheryl Gwyther said...

PS Love the new look on your blog! :)

Sherryl said...

I agree, Sheryl! After the first few episodes I realised that while he was showing some terrible, real situations, part of the skill in the writing was how he resolved each story without being soppy or simplistic. His characters are always multi-layered, and often I'll be thinking about an episode for days after.

Amra Pajalic said...

I feel like the Aussies are desperately competing with Americans and trying to produce their generic shows, but getting it horribly wrong. Have to agree I'm turned off television in general. The predictable tv shows are so annoying, but I'm just sick of being tossed back and forth when they change show times to suit ratings.

The Book Chook said...

I love NYPD Blue. They get so many elements exactly right, camera work is superb, characterisation is believable, acting is good and yes, stories have situational tension but also different tensions like what comes from the juxtaposition of two characters with different beliefs.

Sherryl said...

Amra - Channel 9 killed The Wire by doing that. But even now, they'd still consider it was a "minor interest" show because it's all about ratings.

Sherryl said...

Book Chook - I always loved Sipowicz. His top level was seemingly racist, but the other levels were all about other stuff that really made you think. His struggles as a single dad were classic, but didn't infringe on the core of the show - rather the characters' private lives added other dimensions.

The Book Chook said...

Sipowizc is Everyman, isn't he. I somehow cringe and empathize at the same time! We have started from the beginning and Sylvia hasn't had their son yet, but I just love the way the writers are showing the growth and problems in their relationship. I don't want soap opera, but I compare NYPD with other crime shows and it is the characters who win it every time for NYPD.

Thanks for getting me thinking about tension in all kinds of writing!

Sherryl said...

He gets better as it goes on. He becomes the 'dinosaur' in a world of 'new policing' but it's that double edge - he makes you feel like he's at least half-right!
And also the actor is great, it really is the writing.

Anonymous said...

are you gay i thought it was about how to create tension you fucked it up change ur blog name