A lot of teachers and instructors of story talk about tension and suspense. But they seem to accompany that with conflict. And conflict is pretty simple: want vs obstacles. When I attended David Freeman's Beyond Structure weekend seminar he explained tension and suspense the best: What happens next.
Think about it. You know that scene when the lone girl opens the door to the downstairs basement. A guttural sound grates against the darkness.
A normal person would be like, "Oh, hell no." Then slams the door locked.
But that's no fun.
The girl slowly places her foot down on the first step. It creaks. She dips her head but can't see through the darkness. She takes another step. Something below shuffles around. The step creaks as she takes another step.
Why is she doing this?!
Then we realize the steps are the split kind. The kind where someone can reach through and grab her ankles. I hate those! Every step she takes we see it from behind the stairs. Is someone or something going to grab her?
She continues down and is now in the bowels of the basement. That same guttural sound emanates from a black corner.
What she gonna do?
She heads for it.
"Yargh!" Her little brother jumps out and says, "You're it!"
Something similar happened to me this morning. I was taking the train to work. The smell of body odor permeated the seats, people were stuffed into every square inch of the train, a baby cried somewhere upfront. The train stopped and a rush of people offboarded. A flood of morning fresh air washed in.
Then a stale smell like jeans that had been worn for six months turned my nose. I looked up and a guy in what I describe as rags for sweatpants and a dirty hoodie stepped onboard. He had fingerless black cotton gloves. Face was shiny. He started singing, badly.
The doors closed and the train headed toward the city.
He saw the baby that cried earlier, walked over to him and his mother, and started baby talk in Spanish. He took out what looked like curly, shiny barbed wire without the barbs. And as he sang he straightened it. Cotton gloves seemed to protect him from cuts. The wire got longer and longer. His vigorousness made the wire swing above the baby, close to the mother. The mother turned her back to him, grabbed a hold of a handle, a quiet attempt to shield her baby boy.
The guy continued to straighten it, and the sharp wire shook over the stroller. Then he straightened one section, holding it as if to strangle someone. The train shook, and he stomped toward the mother to gain his balance, wire in hand. He looked down at the baby and spoke Spanish again, wire in hand. Mother still had her back to him. Every one snuck peaks at the scene. He started to straighten the wired as it got longer, it got closer to the stroller, to the mother.
The train stopped. Door slid open. And the man stepped off the train. Every one breathed a sigh of relief. Except a girl who got up because she had to get off at the same stop. She dragged her feet out.
That was intense because I wasn't sure why he was straightening the wire, or if he was just going to go postal and strangle someone.
In both the made up scene and what happened this morning the tension came from wondering what was going to happen next. Conflict, in story terms, didn't exist.