May 24, 2011

Building Story Tension

The other day I finally got around to watching “The Mist,” which is based on a short novel by Stephen King of the same name.  First of all, I have to give a shout out to any The Dark Tower fans out there who might read this.  In the beginning, the main character, who happens to be a movie poster artist similar to real-life Drew Struzan, (whose work is actually the work of the fictional main character) is painting a picture of cowboy-like, gun-toting Roland Deschain of Gilead from Stephen King’s epic fantasy series The Dark Tower.  It was rumored at the time of “The Mist” release that Hollywood was finally going to make The Dark Tower books into films and it now sounds like director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer are going to make good on that rumor.

Anyways, I thought “The Mist” was a good flick, but it felt a bit like a television miniseries and if you’ve seen Stephen King’s “Storm of the Century,” you’ll know what I’m talking about.  But that’s neither here nor there.  While watching the movie there were some great storytelling devices related to building story tension that I wanted to discuss (and don’t worry, I won’t include any spoilers).

Unseen Adversaries
Seeing an enemy is frightening enough, but not seeing one can be even worse.  With a lack of imagery our imagination takes over, conjuring all sorts of frightening thoughts and fantasies.  “The Mist” employs this technique and uses it very well early on when the town is blanketed in a misty fog, preventing the townspeople from seeing more than a few feet in front of them.  What’s worse, when people go out into the mist really, really bad things happen to them and you wonder what’s going on.  Something lethal is out there, but what the heck is it?  Not knowing makes it that much more frightening.

Objects themselves can be a source of suspense or tension and “The Mist” uses a few to be sure.  In particular, one brave man ventures out into the mist with one end of a rope tied around his waist with the surviving townspeople holding the other in case he needs help.  You know right away something is going to happen and the looseness or tautness of the rope during that sequence gives one a pretty good idea which way things are going.

Man vs. Man
This one can be the freakiest of all.  Put a bunch of people together in an isolated environment, scare them out of their minds and take away the basic governing rules of society and what do you think will happen?  There is a religious zealot in this film and I mean zealot in the strongest way possible that begins to convince people the end of the world is near and in the process justifies some pretty nasty deeds.  It’s hard enough fighting an unseen enemy from a foggy mist, but what do you do when the people around you start becoming a threat?

What are some techniques you’re aware of for building story tension?  Do you have any examples from books or films that come to mind?

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia