3 Ways to Build Tension in Films

August 24, 2019
Conveying tension is one of the main aspects a film needs in order to be satisfying to the audience. Films generally considered greats are rife with tension, whether it comes from the characters, their situation, or the stakes built up around them. So, how is this tension built up?

Building Tension with Characters

Thelma and Louise (1991, Dir: Ridley Scott) is a perfect example of a film building tension through the characters. The film progresses with both protagonists at a crossroads and feeling the need for change and stimulation in their lives. Through their friendship, their characters are explored and evolve to the point where the final act sees the character-led tension build up to a critical mass, according to vanityfair.com. Without spoiling the ending, the characters have traversed the film, slowly building up tension between themselves, in order to then have the climax make sense. Had the tension not been doled out carefully, the ending would seem rash and not make sense to the viewer. The film Falling Down (1993, Dir: Joel Schumacher) follows a similar trait, with the tension for Michael Douglas being built up just enough to make his actions in the film make sense – whether we agree with them or not.

Building Tension with Situations

Horror flick The Babadook (2014, Dir: Jennifer Kent) creates tension throughout, from the discovery of the Mister Babadook book to the unveiling of the monster according to nofilmschool.com. As the film fits the horror genre, building tension is critical in order to make the monster reveal worthy. Audiences are led down the path of red herrings and false starts to ensure their nerves are primed for the satisfying scenes towards the end. If the goal of a horror movie is to scare people, this needs to be done with a gradual build-up of tension. In a lot of cases, what ends up scaring the most is what the audience’s mind began to predict for them, not the actual events happening on screen. Musical cues and changes in tempo are often used to aid the horror genre in building up tension, and the popularity of jump scares are factored into the plot of horror movies today.

Building Tension with Stakes

Another way in which tension can be built is through the high stakes that are established for a character or event. For instance, the film Rounders (1998, Dir: John Dahl) is based around playing poker, but the tension is delicately balanced in order to culminate in a hugely climactic and tense final poker match between Matt Damon and John Malkovich. An event in the film that would traditionally provoke tension in real life is a realistic way of building tension in the mise-en-scene. As bestpokies.net shows through its peer reviews of various pokies sites, opportunities for an exciting, high-stakes game of poker is an aspect that poker players use when deciding which pokies site to use. So, this is a realistic way of building tension in the film, especially if the entire premise of the film hinges on a poker game.

Building up tension is critical to creating a believable and successful film. Without tension, the film has no reason to make the audience care about the characters. Through characterisation, high stakes, or situations, filmmakers can create tension in films.

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