Dramatic tension

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Dramatic tension is how you keep an audience hooked to the story of your play. It is about creating and maintaining an audience’s involvement in the “journey” of your play. But how is dramatic tension achieved? Below are some of the ways:

  • One of the main ways of creating tension is by planting questions in the “mind” of the audience. As soon as a play begins, audiences have questions they want answered by the playwright. Where and when is the play set and why? What are the characters doing? Are they important characters? Where will the play head? What is the theme of the story?
  • At the informational level, dramatic tension/interest can be created. For example, rationing information is a device for creating such interest. Sometimes new writers want to tell all at the beginning of their play in an eager attempt to give their audience an in-depth understanding of the direction and purpose of the story. This dense dumping of information however is usually counter-productive as audiences cannot absorb it. Besides, withholding information can be as important as revealing information as a dramatic technique because it creates another question in the audience’s mind, i.e. an audience is more likely to stay with your story because you have created a puzzle for which they want a solution. When and where to reveal information is therefore an important part of the design and structure of a play. One note of caution: it is important as a playwright to know what questions you have planted in the audience’s mind and make sure you address them adequately and appropriately in your script.
  • Inference is another way to effectively deliver information and at the same time create interest/tension. Inferring, instead of stating information outright, means the audience makes assumptions, which may or may not be correct. Thus they will  be interested to see if their assumptions are right.
  • Conflict, of course, is a major way of creating and maintaining dramatic tension. Conflict can be external or internal – between characters or within a character. Creating conflict is usually about creating obstacles for your characters to surmount. It is therefore linked to your character’s developmental arc in the story as it is something that prevents or impedes your character from achieving his/her story objective. If the character is the “hero” or central character of the story we usually want them to succeed in the purpose of their dramatic journey and will wait around until they do. Consequently, creating audience empathy for a character is another important means of maintaining dramatic tension. Audiences project onto characters and into their situations; they identify and make emotional investments in their dramatic outcomes. They have a vicarious “stake” in the story through this projection mechanism. Making your characters worthwhile for an audience to invest in is therefore an essential part of the writer’s task. If the author doesn’t care about his/her characters, why should the audience?
  • Dramatic irony can also be used to create tension. Dramatic irony happens when the audience knows more than the characters on stage. It is quite an old device; Shakespeare often used it.  However, it continues  to be widely employed by contemporary writers. For example, an audience may know a boyfriend has cheated on his girlfriend, but she does not know. When he is expressing his unwavering love to her on stage, the audience feels outraged on her behalf because of his insincerity. Generally, audiences want characters to learn the truth of their situations in the course of a play and await eagerly for the character’s moment of discovery.

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