Slowly the train leaves the station. It enters a tunnel, emerges into the sunlight, and begins a long, excruciatingly slow climb. Click click click goes the car on the rails. Up, up, up, in what feels like the slowest, most agonizing, heart-constricting journey of your life.
That train pulls a heavy load. Along with the passengers, it carries the weight of their expectations – their hopes, fears, and most deeply-rooted psychological needs.
The worst moment comes at the top, where the car pauses for an instant, then plunges down with a joyful whoosh of release.
But it’s not just the downward fall that brings so much satisfaction. It’s the entire roller coaster ride – start to finish – with its rise and fall repeated over and over.
The same interplay of tension and release is the dynamic that drives any story, screenplay, movie, musical composition, or speech. It’s the engine of narrative.
From our knowledge of psychology and brain science, we know that human beings – whether readers, viewers, or listeners – naturally respond to the same dynamic.
Tension, the active ingredient, is created by an open question. Will she or won’t she? It triggers the possibility of the unknown and the terror that goes along with it. Release is a thrill that satisfies, but only briefly. It sets us up for the next round.
Dopamine is what drives the process – it’s the neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. It controls our cravings for whatever is new, fresh, and unknown.
Excitement comes from the novelty and possibilities of the unknown. Going up the roller coaster, flush with dopamine, we’re consumed with wondering: How fast will this go? Do the brakes really work? Will I fall out? Am I going to die?
That’s why we experience the excitement of Christmas not just in the opening of the presents, but in the anticipatory pleasure that takes place before the holiday, when we find ourselves wondering, what’s inside the presents?
That’s why kids will rush to unwrap their presents with, then spend all afternoon playing with the boxes. The presents weren’t the point.
Every well constructed story is built on tension and release, a series of conflicts introduced and then resolved.
The writer generates obstacles that are seemingly impossible to overcome, then comes up with interesting ways for the characters to get around them. Will she defeat the enemy? Will he cheat death?
Every time an obstacle is overcome, we move closer to resolving the larger problem.
Without this dynamic, stories fail to grab our attention. In fact they’re not really stories at all.
As Mike Long says, when you introduce the haunted house on the edge of town, you’ve got two choices. You can say, There are no ghosts in the house on the edge of town, and let me tell you why.
Or you can say, Does that house on the edge of town have ghosts?
Which way would you write it?
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