Creating the proper tension for a scene is one of the most difficult challenges a writer can face. Providing all of the proper elements that culminate in a nerve tightening sequence of suppressed anticipation takes skill, precision, and proper planning.
When it comes to kids’ movies, these challenges increase tenfold. While adults may be willing to wait patiently for a scene to develop, kids have shorter attention spans. Scenes of mounting tension must be written even clearer, conveyed even more seamlessly than in any other medium.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no greater scene of tension in all of animated cinema than the wildebeest stampede from Disney’s The Lion King. For any student of writing, this scene is a treasure trove for gleaning tips on tension in all types and formats. Here are five tips you can learn about building tension from The Lion King:
Hint at, But Don’t Reveal the Danger
The clues which are provided leading up to this scene progress so seamlessly one into the other that it is only just before the stampede occurs that the audience suddenly concludes what is about to happen. Take a look at the progression of events which lead up to this scene:
- Scar Talks to Simba: Given Scar’s villainous persona, his ominous conversation with his young nephew begins clueing the viewer into the fact that some imminent danger is lurking
- The Hyenas Watching the Wildebeest: Following up on the heels of Scar’s foreboding words comes the disturbing presence of the hyenas. This, coupled with the shot of the wildebeest herd, begins fueling the uneasiness that will eventually evolve into a full blown scene of tension
- Simba’s Isolation/The Trembling Ground: In just a matter of seconds, the writers convey instantly the grave reality of Simba’s situation through a clever combination of visual and audio. Simba, practicing his roar, follows his echo around the walls of the valley. His expression of delight quickly melts into one of worry as he realizes his situation in the same instant as the audience: he is completely alone in an abandoned canyon. The trembling of the ground a moment later provides the sudden breaking point between concern and full blown panic as the grisly revelation of Simba’s impending fate reaches out and strikes the viewer in the gut.
This progression of stimuli provided one after the other is absolutely vital when constructing tension within a scene. Think of tension as a slowly rising graph, with each element of the story providing the individual points at which the level increases.
Create Multiple Layers of Tension
Tension comes in all different forms and sizes. Providing different layers of tension which all exist within the same scene will ensure the rapt attention of your audience. Observe the different forms of tension which exist within this scene:
-Physical/Imminent Danger- The most obvious source of tension lies in the physical danger to Simba. The sudden and seemingly inescapable peril which soon engulfs him provides a level of intense strain for viewers of all ages
-Emotional Tension- Once Mufasa enters the scene, the viewer is thrust into a deeper layer of tension: emotional tension. Though our anxiety still ultimately surrounds Simba, the emotional tension here comes about by proxy through Mufasa. What will happen to Simba if Mufasa is killed? We suddenly empathize with him not just on a physical, but on an emotional level
-Political Tension- As strange as it may seem, this scene even contains a level of political tension. Having been educated on the nature of the lion’s hierarchy throughout the course of the film, the viewer realizes that the death of Simba and Mufasa would mean not only the destruction of two beloved characters, but Pride Rock itself. Scar’s scheming is not contained to just the murder of his brother and nephew, it reaches to even darker and deeper levels that provide tension of a truly political nature
These various layers of tension are critical to appealing to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Make an effort to provide this same sort of depth and appeal to your scenes of tension.
Make Use of Various Conflicts
All stories revolve around a conflict of some sort. If you look at an individual scene, particularly a scene of tension, as its own entity, at least one major form of conflict becomes necessary. Just like layering tension, there is also great value in layering various forms of conflict. Take a look at the different forms of conflict the writers of The Lion King provide in this scene:
-Hero vs. The Elements- The physical location of this scene itself provides its own unique form of conflict. With high cliffs on either side and virtually no place to hide or run, the geography of the canyon itself provides a deadly conflict for Simba in this sequence
-The One vs. The Many- If there is safety in numbers, it would seem to follow that there is danger in isolation. In this sequence, that reality comes home with deadly force on Simba. The sheer magnitude of the wildebeest herd, any one of which could easily crush the young lion, serves as a very clear and threatening conflict
-The Weak vs. The Strong- Finally, the conflict between Simba and his villainous uncle Scar serves as the under-riding struggle tying all of the others together. Simba’s physical and mental inability to face his uncle can ultimately be traced out as the true core of this scene’s conflict.
One key point to remember when writing is to give your audience a chance to breathe. One scene of tension following one right after the other will exhaust the audience and force them to disengage from your story.
When constructing two scenes of tension, make sure to include an “easing off” period in between to allow your audience to refresh emotionally. Take a look at the progression of events between the wildebeest stampede and the hyena chase, the next notable scene of tension:
- Simba searches for Mufasa
- Simba locates and mourns the deceased Mufasa
- Scar appears and convinces his nephew to run away
- Scar orders the hyenas to kill his nephew
You should notice something important about this sequence of events: although free of physical tension, these scenes are still rich in emotional tension. This is acceptable for one important reason: the audience is still engaged, but not anxious. Giving your audience “a breather” doesn’t necessarily mean a moment of comic relief, it is simply a leveling off of the increase in tension. Make careful note of this: cut your audience a break, but keep them engaged.
Finally, one vital point to remember when constructing a scene of tension (or any other scene for that matter) is this: take time to add the finishing touches. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a film or writing a book; visual and written details are key to painting that picture of tension.
Details are the subtle, subconscious stimuli that prick the audience on a deeper level. Take a look at some of the details the writers of The Lion King include to fully cement the tension of this scene:
- The trembling pebbles as the stampede approaches
- The hyenas’ comments about “waiting for Scar” that hint at the danger to come
- The cracking in the tree branch that Simba is clinging to
While each of these details may seem insignificant on their own, when viewed in conjunction with the rest of the scene as a whole, they paint vivid pictures of danger which the audience take in without even realizing it. Practice this skill more and more in your own writing; make an effort to create “word pictures” that show, rather than tell.
When it comes to creating tense scenes, make it a point to keep this question in mind: would a child understand what is happening ? Though a simple tip, this will help clarify much of your writing. Don’t make your audience do the work: paint a picture so clear that the most distracted reader becomes engrossed. Take a tip from Disney’s The Lion King: layer the tension of your scenes so that audiences of all ages are at the edge of their seats.
Jonathan Vars is a Christian fiction writer from New England, and founder of the writing website voltampsreactive.com. His latest novel “Like Melvin” is currently available on Amazon and Google Books. In addition to writing, Jonathan enjoys running, hiking, and trying not to freeze to death in the winter.