Anton Chigurh flips the coin, slaps it on the counter, and asks the gas station clerk to call it. No one in the movie ever explicitly says what the consequences of a wrong call is, but we all know (partly because we’ve already seen a few examples of how Chigurh will so nonchalantly murder innocent people). Based on the sweat on the attendant’s forehead and his passive attempts to get Chigurh to leave, he knows the consequences as well. The most Chigurh ever says in way of a threat is a mere “I could come back then” when the gas station clerk tells him he goes to bed at 9:30. Despite and because of that, we witness one of the most tense scenes in movie history.
What the Coen Brother’s did in No Country for Old Men (based off of a scene in the equally tense book by Comerick McCarthy) is create tension. It’s one of those emotions writers and filmmakers like to make us feel, much like love, empathy and a desire to buy Batman action figures. But tension very well might be the most addictive of these emotions as it can do so many things and make us so immersed on the ride. And, therefore, it is one of the best tools for getting people to tune invest in your story.
But what creates that tension? What is that magical secret ingredient all us yearn for (rivaled only by the secret ingredient in McDonald’s special sauce)? Well I don’t know for sure—I’m only human,. But I have a pretty good guess:
And I’m going to make you wait.
Look at it in an equally great scene: the opening from Inglorious Basterds. When Christopher Waltz’s Character is grilling the farmer, goddamn does the temperature rise in the room. He’s being so charming, but much like Anton Chigurh, we know his reputation, thus the anticipation of what might happen eats away at us.
Same in Before Sunrise. We want them to get together so bad (well, the sappy, romantic side of me does at least), and the will they/ won’t they question, which is present in most romantic movies, gets to us.
Or Curb Your Enthusiasm when Larry David is talking to pretty much anyone. Things might go well for a bit, but after just watching a few episodes, we know full well it’s just a matter of time before the person finds a reason to get mad at Larry and ruin whatever particular thing he’s working towards.
I started this conversation with the clever people over at Stage 33, who had a ton of great theories too. How tension comes from the audience knowing more about the situation than the characters, Us knowing how dangerous the antagonist or consequence is will create that suspense. That it has to stem from us actually giving a fuck about the characters.
All of these things I believe are absolutely true. And while these things aren’t present in every example of tension, they all do create it.
And it’s all through anticipation.
So we have the ingredient to cook up that tension. Score! But what do we do with it?
That all depends on what effect you want on the audience.
Tension in Suspense
There’s two components to tension: the build of the anticipation and the release of it. In thrillers, horror movies, dramas, or any other movies that contain suspense, the focus is on the build.
Alfred Hitchcock wasn't dubbed the Master of Suspense for nothin. He builds suspense in most of his movies from beginning to end. This is why Psycho, Vertigo, Rope, etc. get more and more tense as the movie goes on, and it’s why we get more and more invested.
Breaking Bad often ends episodes on the most tense moments, which is why we get the feeling that we HAVE to move onto the next episode.
There is usually some kind of release, but it’s smaller.
Anton Chigurh lets the gas station clerk be, which is a relief, but we know he’s still going to be out there and up to mischief, so it’s not much of one. The characters in the Birds get moments they can relax, but they’re short-lived too.
In horror movies, the relief is often not much a relief at all, but a scream. Jason or Jigsaw or Chucky kills someone, making the audience scream, and it’s only a relief in-so-much that the particular scene is over and we no longer have that victim to worry about.
In the will-they/ won’t they stories, there’s usually moments where the characters do lean towards getting together, only to have them pulled apart later. Those teases!
Tension in Comedy
In comedies, it’s all about the release.
The tension builds, and when we’re hit with a laugh, it’s so much bigger because it’s combined with the release.
We do worry about Larry David or George Costanza messing everything up for themselves, as they so often do, but when it happens, it’s combined with a hilarious moment, and we laugh all the harder.
There’s so much tension in the crowd when the axe thrower hits his ”mark.” A combination of shock and gasping and laughing and every man in the audience crossing his legs. Johnny’s reaction was on point. The patience of waiting through the audience's reaction! And when he delivers his line, that anticipation and tension makes it KILL.
You could say this is true of every joke. There’s a building of this anticipation in the set-up, and then when we’re hit with the punchline, especially if a surprising one, we laugh. It’s why jokes have setups in the first place, and it’s why a comedy movie or show can’t be just a series of punchlines.
Tension really does create magic across genres. It might be one of the useful emotions we have as writers. So start building that anticipation and see what you can do to your audience.