Andrew Girle's Blog

Crime and Speculative Fiction Blooking

Thinking about tension in narrative

Posted by Andrew Girle on April 9, 2010

(this is also up on my myspace site)

I’ve been pondering why it is that in some genres tension is mistaken for lust. Blood lust. Think about the movie SAW, and the movie MAD MAX (or as they renamed it in the US, THE ROAD WARRIOR). Both have scenes where the principal character gives another character the option to cut off a limb to save their life, yet Mel Gibson does it understated and for all the graphic violence of the movie, we don’t see the gruesome foot chopping. But we can imagine it, and wince all the way to our spines at the choice offered. In SAW, the chopping is there in all its gory glory, and we flinch at the special effects, not at the anticipation of them.

Is it just me that finds tension to be a combination of anticipation and imagination? The greatest tension I ever recall in a movie was in Spielberg’s DUEL – where we never see the truck driver. RESERVOIR DOGS has the incredibly tense torture/interrogation scene involving petrol, but that did not raise the fear levels for me, rather making me nauseous.

The old cliched action movie trope of the sawmill and the 6 foot Canadian ripsaw bench and the heroine tied to the chain drive raises the tension because we can all imagine what will happen if she is not rescued, and there is the anticipation of just how the rescue is to be effected. Would it be just as effective, or even more so, if it was a hobbyists portable saw bench with a 6 inch electric saw and the victim being dragged along by a tractor sprinkler?

Now I am just getting silly.

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