Giving The Audience A Great Ride: How to Create Passion, Suspense, and Other Entertainment Dimensions
By James Bonnet
The entertainment dimensions are the pleasant sensations the audience feels when they experience your story. The most important of these feelings are those associated with the actions of the genre structures. When you isolate the plots and subplots of your story, you isolate actions that are directly linked to specific feelings that are associated with romance, mystery, adventure or some other particular activity. Among the more desirable feelings associated with these genres are laughter and tears, love and hate, passion, excitement, suspense, fear and joy.
Laughter and tears need no explanation. Love and hate means getting your audience deeply involved with your characters. Passion, in this sense, doesn't just mean romance, it means giving the audience an intense emotional experience. Suspense means moving them to the edge of their seat, excitement gives them a physical thrill, magic fills them with a sense of wonder and awe, surprise startles and delights them, and fear scares their pants off. The promise of these feelings helps to lure the audience into the experience and the fulfillment of that promise gives them pleasure and a sense of having been entertained.
The emotional values that make up these dimensions are enhanced by a number of factors, among them make-believe. Make-believe separates the intriguing aspects of a given situation from the fear of the consequences we might experience in real life. In real life, nothing could be less entertaining than a real serial killer stalking your neighborhood. Your only concern would be to get rid of him as soon as possible. When you're experiencing a story, the fear of consequences is eliminated, and you are left with the pleasant sensations associated with the hunt, and you can study the mechanics of that experience objectively. Using this separation, a story can artistically treat and translate even the most horrible real crimes into an intriguing entertainment that conceals an important truth in a powerful metaphor.
Another factor is structure. Separated from the fear of consequences, the archetypal struggle between good and evil, which can be so deadly in real life, becomes a game in story. The same structures, in fact, that make a game fun help to make a story fun -- i.e. the fact that it involves opposing sides, important things at stake, a marvelous element, possible victories or defeats, and a ticking clock.
Two other factors are the technical and aesthetic dimensions. The aesthetic dimensions -- clarity, beauty, elegance, harmony, rhythm and grace are the pleasing effects created by the skillful use of the technical dimensions -- variety, contrast, proportion, timing, symmetry and tempo. Contrast, for example, is a major factor in creating clarity. When you contrast such things as good and evil, spiritual and physical, rich and poor, light and dark, silence and sounds, you heighten the effect of both and greatly increase the clarity.
Each of the hundred or so powerful dimensions of a story has an impact on the entertainment values of the story, so the more dimensions you can add and perfect, the greater the emotional impact on the audience. The more substance you can put behind it, the more powerful your story is going to be -- the better the audience will enjoy the ride and the more often they will come back to experience it.
If you are creating a drama, the characters will behave as they do in real life. This puts the audience in touch with reality, and they experience the sensations of real life. If you are creating a tragedy or a romance, you are exaggerating the nobility of the characters. You are making them bigger than life. They become role models the audience can identify with and strive to emulate. King Arthur is such a character, and so is Mel Gibson in 'Braveheart.' They put the audience in touch with their own true potential. It gives them a taste of who they really are and the desire to become what they could really be.
If you're creating a comedy, the basic situation will be real, but you are isolating and exaggerating a character's foibles and flaws, the frequency with which errors occur, and the irony experienced by your characters. Woody Allen makes people laugh by exaggerating his own hypochondria and neurosis. Laurel and Hardy exaggerated the frequency with which mishaps and catastrophes can occur. Charles Dickens exaggerated the ignorance and belligerent slowness of his bureaucrats and the difficulties his heroes had in trying to deal with them, and this makes it funny -- and that helps us to laugh at ourselves. Even serious plays like Hamlet have, or should have, a great deal of humor. A story without humor is not about human beings.
If you separate or reunite two characters the audience cares deeply about, that will put them in touch with the tragedy of separation and the joys of reunion hidden deep within their own souls, and that will make them cry. Do you remember how you felt at the end of 'E.T.' when the little boy and his extraterrestrial friend are separated? The tears of sorrow that you shed? Or the tears of joy you experienced at the end of 'I Am Sam,' when Sean Penn and his daughter are reunited with the help of Laura Dern?
Passion, in the present sense, is not just romance, it is emotional intensity. It is our feeling potential. It increases the emotional involvement. So, if you want to increase the passion your audience is feeling, fill your characters with deep emotional feelings of love or passion for some activity like patriotism, and you will arouse those feelings in your audience. You can easily see this demonstrated in 'Braveheart,' or 'Shakespeare In Love.' Increasing the passion of your characters puts the audience in touch with similar feelings hidden within themselves.
Audiences love it when characters show their feelings -- especially changes of heart, forgiveness, acts of love and kindness, and self sacrifice. If you want to increase the love the audience feels toward your heroes, let the hero do kind, humane and loving things. And let him or her show courage and be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. If you saw 'Armageddon,' do you remember how you felt when Bruce Willis suddenly sacrifices his life for the sake of his future son-in-law and the world? For an instant, at least, we all wanted to be heroes, too. That's passion in the characters transferred to us in the audience. If your characters could care less about each other, the audience will feel the same about them.
If you want the audience to hate your villains, make the villains more villainous. Isolate their negative qualities and conjure them until you have thoroughly vilified them. That will intensify the loathing the audience will feel toward them, and it will also intensify the rejection the audience will feel toward similar impulses arising in themselves. To be truly effective, of course, the villain's villainy has to be in the context of a full human being.
If you want to increase the excitement of your story, isolate and artistically treat the physical action and intensify it. Raise the stakes, increase the urgency and the danger and quicken the pace. And save the greatest burst of energy for the climax of the dominant plot. The chase is an obvious example.
If you want to increase the suspense, make us anxious over how things will turn out and delay the result. Excite interest or curiosity; then hold back the resolution. Anything that causes tension and anxiety causes suspense if it's unrelieved. And what causes tension or anxiety? Anything intriguing or threatening that's unresolved. The more there is at stake, the greater the tension and suspense. And if everything is at stake and there's no time to lose, and the odds are overwhelming, and success is highly unlikely, you will maximize the tension and suspense. And all of this is a reflection of reality. In real life, everything is always at stake. There really is no time to lose, and the outcome is always extremely uncertain. When nothing is at stake, it's not about life, and there is very little tension and suspense.
As for the aesthetic and technical dimensions, you only have to realize they are important, and they will begin to work for you. The moment you realize that timing and variety are important you will begin to develop a sense of how they are created. And the more you work with them, the more effective they will become.
So learn as much as you can about what an audience feels and why and how those feelings are created. Be aware of what works for you, then figure out why it works. What just happened? What caused those feelings or that laughter? And you will quickly develop an instinct for it. Remember the promise of these feelings lures the audience into the experience. And you're not manipulating them, you're putting them in touch with themselves, with their own feelings. And that's a very good thing.
Meet the Author: James Bonnet
James Bonnet is an internationally known writer and story consultant. Elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, he has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. He created the role of James Roosevelt in the Tony Award winning hit Broadway show, Sunrise at Campobello, and received his first professional writing job at 23. Recently he was honored with a Writer’s Guild of America award for his writing contribution to the hit television series, Barney Miller. His book has been taught in university courses around the world and is having a major impact on writers in all media.