I am fascinated by the nature of escalation in narrative. Tension is born of conflict and complication (though only when married with strong characters, but that’s a different post), and that tension is correctly viewed as the prime mover in most narrative situations. Without tension, your story is as limp and flat as a road-smashed black snake — doesn’t matter how awesome the characters are, if the story cannot escalate and show a ratcheting of tension, then you don’t give the audience that driving reason to continue.
In fiction, escalation is everything.
Understanding escalation gives you a powerful tool in composing a strong plot and driving story: it’s the thing that brings people back to the book, it’s the thing that glues them to the screen, that stops them from changing channels, that keeps them playing the game well past the point of “reasonable time management.” In understanding escalation, it’s then critical to know its shape, to know how to implement it, to know its weave and weft, its finesse, its possibility.
Don’t expect this post to answer all that, mind you: I’m just over here in the corner, froth-mouthed and rambling. Try to follow the bouncing ball, but please, don’t hesitate to add your zwei pfennig to the cup.
The Male Ejaculatory Arc Is Wrong
In school, they teach you a very simple shape in terms of the narrative. Douglas Rushkoff refers to this as the “male ejaculatory arc,” and it shows the supposed rise in tension in fiction:
Loosely defined, you might say this represents: “Shit gets more and more fucked up until it gets better.”
Except, I call shenanigans on that. Maybe if you were to look at this shape from, say, the moon, where detail and granularity are lost, it’s a good one. And if you’re looking for something broad and sweeping, this works — it shows that in fiction tension rises, rises, rises, then it pops its cork — “the money shot” — and from there it’s downhill toward, I dunno, satisfaction or shame depending on the story.
What this fails to address though, is that while escalation of tension is a critical component, it isn’t so perfect that you can (usually) get away with a straight and uncomplicated rise to the money shot. The human mind doesn’t like that much tension — it can probably handle the stress, but I don’t think it likes it much. As such, you need to plot a lot of little parabolas — gentle rises and falls, like a tide, where each tide is higher (and maybe also lower) than the last, until eventually the gentle tide gives way to the crashing surf. But even a crashing surf has its lulls: note that before the tsunami wave strikes, the ocean is sucked out to sea (what a strange phrase) and those on the beach are said to witness a sense of peace and calm.
Aaaand then the big wave comes and crushes the puny humans. Sploosh. Scream. Gurgle.
Which means that what we’re looking at has a shape more like this:
At each parabolic peak, things are worse than the last. At each dip, the tension is softened — but things are still in worse shape than they were the last time the audience met with a narrative lull.
Hell, if you really wanted to, you could do this up with greater nuance —
Now, I don’t know how meaningful that is as a somewhat generic example, but it does reveal that your story can have a far more complicated rise-and-fall than the heave-ho inhale-exhale “hillocks of tension” shown above. But, were you to plot the escalation of tension in various stories — particularly your own — I bet you’d get something that has a goofier, herkier-jerkier shape. And that’s okay. It’s probably desirable.
Actually, I suppose the more uncertain the shape, the more uncertain the audience. That, too, is a good thing. Astute readers and students of narrative learn to expect that gentle rise-and-fall, and when you know the shape, you’re given the keys to the kingdom: the master equation. A narrative with unexpected rises and falls breaks the pattern somewhat: such inconsistency can be valuable in leaving the audience uncertain. And uncertain audiences, to a point, are a good thing. The audience should never trust the storyteller. Trust in fiction is dull. True suspense and tension are created out of uncertainty, out of distrust.
Various Threads On This Angry Loom
What these shapes so far decline to take into account are the multiple threads that go into the tangled knot of your narrative. Just as it’s oversimplification to point to the male ejaculatory arc of escalation and say, “That’s it!” it is a little too simple to say that the story comprises naught but a single line.
I’m becoming more and more interested in trying to suss out the composition of a story — the equations, the shapes, the variables. In much the same way that music, even jazz, sounds unpredictable and uncertain, it still tends to follow certain patterns, certain rules, even certain math. I don’t know how valuable it would be to have this math in mind during the crafting of a story (maybe very, maybe not at all), but I still think it’s valuable to know this stuff in your gut. Further, I think the true value of this knowledge comes in during later drafts — when you want to tweak, pull, ratchet, it’s important to know what you’re doing, and why.
Anyway, point being, a story is more than just one tenuous thread. You could easily plot tension along lines of different categories: physical, social, emotional. (I don’t know that mental is really that critical a component, and for these purposes I’ll wrap “mental” up into the “emotional.”) Physical conflict is clear: “The character’s life is in danger.” Social tension, too: “The character’s social existence is in danger.” Finally, emotional: “The character threatens to come apart at the seams.” These tensions do not — or, shouldn’t — rise in perfect harmony with one another, right?
Were you to map that, it might look like:
Of course, those three axes are arbitrary — both the number three and what they describe. Could be that you want one line per character. Or per setting — the tensions in New York might be different from the tensions on Moon Base Omega. You might have many shapes covering a variety of axes.
That image doesn’t describe any particular narrative, but were you to map out, say, the lines of tension in a film like Die Hard, you’d get one with a very bold physical line, one that keeps rising and falling higher and higher because, hey, John McClane is in constant physical danger. His emotional line would be mapped out in part due to perceived tensions with his wife, but also due to his fatigue and (in)ability to think and act under duress. The social line might seem the weakest, but McClane suffers under social tensions: the tensions of authority, of the FBI, of his interactions with Hans (both on the radio and in person). (Actually, I’d argue that those tensions with the wife are part of an unwitnessed, almost ghostly thread of social tension — his marriage is threatening to come apart and we know that.)
While at times they might rise and fall together, generally it seems those lines of tension are kept separate.
Victory Laps And Cool Downs
Constant escalation — described by the male ejaculatory arc — is no good for a story. In a masterful hand it could probably work, but for the most part you don’t want to burn the story out (which is really just another way of saying, “burn the audience out”).
Hence, victory laps and cool downs.
Victory laps are those points in the film when the tension climaxes and is resolved somewhat by a sense of victory, of triumph over adversity. They fall into two categories, I think: the True Victory Lap, and the False Victory Lap. If it’s True, it means it’s a genuine moment where the protagonist gains ground. If it’s False, it feels that way until it’s revealed to be the calm before the storm (or that lull before a tsunami).
In Die Hard we get both types: whenever McClane offs one of the terrorists, it’s by and large a moment of actual victory. But he also suffers under the False Victory Lap, too: say, when he thinks he’s succeeded in bringing the police, all he manages is to bring one fat guy from that Urkel show (who subsequently almost drives away thinking nothing at all is wrong).
The “cool down” — or, since I’m such a fan of meaningless capitalization, the Cool Down — is really just a time to deflate the tires a little and suck the air out of the tension. It’s an exhalation of breath. Die Hard has plenty of these: in particular, those moments when McClane is on the radio with Powell (aka “donut cop”) constitute a breather for them and, by proxy, for us as the audience.
That’s not to say that any such lull is devoid of tension. Consider that, when Holly Gennero-slash-McClane is talking to Hans about getting the hostages to a pee break and getting a couch for the pregnant lady, we’re in a cooling down period away from the tense “Holy Shit John McClane Is In So Much Fucking Danger Right Now” moment. But that scene still has its tension: will Hans just shoot her? Will he see the picture of her family — meaning, of John — turned down on her desk? There’s tension even in the possibility where he denies her request. It’s not huge tension, but it’s there.
It reminds us that those various threads and axes of tension don’t all have to ebb and flow together. That scene represents a cool down from, say, Physical lines of tension, but we still have a Social-slash-Emotional rise. Hell, one line could peak as another could dip.
I’ve not yet done this, but it’s be interesting to plot the tension in a story — mine, yours, somebody else’s — with images similar to the ones above. Thing is, we used to do that in school and it was largely subjective, held to the whims of how tense a scene felt. That’s okay, because I don’t know that you could really give it a truly objective look, but I think you could make it a little more concrete by using numerical expressions to plot the points on the lines of tension.
Anybody ever do anything like this? I know Robin Laws has done lots of work with this, and the new Gameplaywright book Hamlet’s Hit Points very possibly works in this direction. Way I’d do it initially would just be to go scene by scene and give that scene an overall number between 1 – 10 across the axes of Physical, Emotional, Social, then plot those on a graph, see how it shakes out.
Love to see if anybody’s done work on this. Be advised, before anybody jumps in here with a snarky self-superior, “This is nothing new,” believe it or not I’m aware that I’m not breaking ground with this stuff. But it’s still fundamental shit that clearly some writers don’t get because, hey, I’ve read stories that are a dull beeping flatline — straight-up DOA. I think a lot of writers are afraid of this kind of nuance, this nitty-gritty — or, if it’s not fear, it stems from laziness, “I want to tell magical unicorn stories, not worry about all this stuff.” (Or, they’re writers who are so great where they know all this stuff intuitively, and don’t feel the need to bone up their game. I’m good, but not great, and hence I like to keep this stuff in mind.)
Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Complaints? Prayer requests? Death threats?