Dramatic tension is the seed from which all good stories grow. From the earliest days’ stories told around glowing embers at the mouth of a cave to the most recent of tales re-enacted on the oversize screen at your local cinema.
We love the superhuman scale of a good drama–from the doing of impossible deeds, to the resolution of a star-crossed romance, to the solving of that quirky, sordid, and convoluted mystery. One of the most enduring of modern mysteries is John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
If you are not familiar with this book, you might want to change that. It is a classic any way one chooses to view it. And there now exist two film versions–one the television series made by BBC in 1979 starring Sir Alec Guiness, and more recently the 2011 motion picture starring Gary Oldman.
Both excellent Smileys. But the BBC series managed what the motion picture failed (for me) to do. It incrementally built dramatic tension by the classic method of progress versus setback, each one more dramatic than its predecessor, until the grand finale–which in this case is the unveiling of the villain and his subsequent death.
When a film version of a book is this good, one must thank not only the book’s author but also the screenwriter–in the BBC instance, Arthur Hopcraft. Kudos go to director John Irvine, and of course Guiness/Smiley. All managed to bring the viewer into this high stakes drama and keep us on board every minute through the careful orchestration of dramatic tension.
Writers know there is a formula for producing the successful screenplay, just as there is one for writing a captivating novel. At the base there must be a good story. The viewer needs to be hooked into caring deeply about the outcome. This usually happens when the heroine’s character unfolds through how she attempts to overcome adversity.
So when you see a wonderful tv series or movie, in addition to the actors, directors, and cinematographers, thank a writer.
Here arejust a few additional examples of screenwriters making excellent use of dramatic tension: To Kill a Mockingbird (did you watch it last Saturday?), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo et al (Swedish version as I haven’t yet seen the American), True Grit (both film versions are excellent), Million Dollar Baby (based on the story by F.X. Toole, dramatized by Paul Harris), The Wire and The Sopranos (both HBO television series utilizing the talents of several screenwriters), The King’s Speech (original screenplay by David Seidler), Downton Abbey (dramatized by Julian Fellowes).