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Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act Of Your Story: Part Two

For Two-Act structures, tension exists with the juxtaposition of two key plot points.

The Goal of a story demands a specific progression of events from beginning to end. Drafting tension onto these events involves less guesswork and more precision if the Author hopes to completely enthrall the Audience. Great tension demands greater intention.

Our previous article Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act of Your Story: Part One introduced the idea of looking to the Static Plot Points in Dramatica for answers. By understanding the fractal nature of the theory, we explored the concept of dialing in the appropriate resolution of the storyform for the task at hand. While Requirements and Prerequisites work within the story at a global scale, they also function as indicators of the growth of tension from Act to Act.

Using Static Plot Points to Generate Tension

The first major movement of a story looks to the Story Prerequisite, the second the Story Requirements. When seen within the greater context of the larger Story Goal, these two Static Plot Points create a natural progression from beginning to end. Trapped within the structure of the narrative, the characters (and therefore, the Audience) look out and sense tension based on these points of structure.

Identifying Two Act Structures

The article Identifying the Number of Acts in Your Story made the case for properly assessing the number of Acts in a story:

Act turns feel like major turning points because they represent a shift into a decidedly different dimension of conflict.

Depending on the narrative, these dimensions of conflict break down into two, three, or four Acts. Once you isolate these major shifts, generating tension becomes a simple matter of refactoring the appropriate Static Plot Point into these Acts.

This technique of using Requirement and Prerequisite to answer questions of dramatic tension works great for Two Act structures: two Acts, two questions, two Static Plot Points. Films like The Sixth Sense, Star Wars, The Matrix, Unforgiven, and The Dark Knight fit this schematic perfectly as they operate under the dramatic tide of rise and fall, or fall and rise.

Star Wars:

Central Dramatic Question: “Will the Rebels find a way to fight back against the Empire?”

  • Act One Dramatic Tension: Will Luke conceive of the idea that the Rebellion needs him, and will the Empire get others to conceive of the ultimate power of their Death Star?”
  • Ben dies at the Midpoint.
  • Act Two Dramatic Tension: “Will Luke and the Rebellion learn the weakness of the Death Star and be able to exploit it before the Empire learns of the location of their hidden base?”

Like the example of The Sixth Sense in the previous article, the Story Prerequisite of Star Wars is Conceiving and the Story Requirement Learning. The Conceiving leads to Learning which eventually makes it possible to accomplish the Goal of Doing: namely, to stand up and fight against the Empire.

In The Sixth Sense, Conceiving led to Learning which eventually allowed the Goal of Understanding to occur. This duality is key to Dramatica: no story is the same, but every story is made up of the same parts. The message and Author’s Intent dictate the focal points of the narrative, the storyform holds it all in focus.

The Goal of Understanding in The Sixth Sense and the positioning of Malcom as a character who prefers internalizing problems before taking action calls for Prerequisites of Conceiving and Requirements of Learning.

Luke prefers taking external action before internalizing which positions him against the Story Goal of Doing in Star Wars in such a way that again, the story requires Learning to get there and Conceiving to precede the Learning.

A character like Luke in a story like The Sixth Sense might require a different set of Requirements and Prerequisites; likewise for a character similar to Malcom in a story like Star Wars. Discovering which type of static plot point works with what Story Goal necessitates a complex web of relations between the story’s Main Character Dynamics (like Approach and Problem-Solving Style) and Plot Dynamics (like Story Outcome and Story Judgment).

Tension for All

Note that in the example of Star Wars, the question of dramatic tension includes both Luke the Protagonist and the Empire—an Antagonist. Most look to the central character of a piece to the exclusion of others in order to determine tension. As the Audience’s representative within a story, the Main Character rightly appropriates this attention as he or she offers the most subjective experience.

Static Plot Points, however, apply to all characters within a story. The Overall Story Throughline—the context where one finds the Story Goal, the Requirements, and the Prerequisites—takes an objective look at all the players within a narrative, the Main Character included. From this vantage point, both Protagonist and Antagonist, Skeptic and Sidekick, and everyone in-between faces these plot points on the way towards the resolution of the Goal.

They may face various interpretations of the Prerequisites and Requirements, but they will always remain of the same Type. Luke and the Empire must first conceive or make others conceive before they can learn. And they must do both before they find themselves ready to fight one another.

More Two Act Structures

While every story calls into play these Static Plot Points, not every story faces Requirements of Learning and Prerequisites of Conceiving. Some stories, like Unforgiven and The Dark Knight require greater understanding or transformation on their journey towards resolving their issues.

In The Sixth Sense characters conflict over the shared Goal of Understanding What Is Wrong with Cole? In Star Wars the Goal of Fighting Each Other (engaging in war amongst the stars) brings everyone into conflict. In Unforgiven, revenge takes center stage.

Unforgiven:

Central Dramatic Question: “Will Munny take revenge on those who would do wrong?”

  • Act One Dramatic Tension: “Will Munny be able to imagine himself as a killer again?”
  • Daggett (Gene Hackman) boots Munny out of town.
  • Act Two Dramatic Tension: “Will Munny be able to bury his demons from the past?”

William Munny (Clint Eastwood) must struggle with imagining himself as a killer before he can muster up enough courage to put his previous victims to rest. Only then can he exact revenge for both the prostitutes and his friend.

The Dark Knight:

Central Dramatic Question: “Will Batman fight the Joker without becoming the Villain?”

  • Act One Dramatic Question: “Will Batman be able to stop the Joker from manipulating Gotham into chaos?”
  • Dent (Aaron Eckhart) announces he is the Batman.
  • Act Two Dramatic Question: “Will Batman be able to save everyone and stop Joker’s reign of terror?”

Batman must first work against Joker’s attempt at manipulating Gotham’s population into turning against one another, before he can actually save them. He must contend with the vigilantes and the mob before saving his girlfriend and the people on the boat. And he has to do these things in this specific order because it adds up to this concept of him doing villainous things. If he didn’t, or if he skipped a step, the progression to bad guy would feel unnatural and deficient. Dramatica guarantees thematic coherence with the order of events in a story.

Three Acts and Beyond

These examples fit nicely into a Prerequisite/Requirement approach as they feature two major dramatic movements. What happens with a story like Witness or L.A. Confidential that function on a three-Act structure? In our next article, we look to additional Static Plot Points to help support the effort to tell the most thematically rich and compelling story.

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