Tension is the force that drives the drama. However it is the most difficult element to comprehend because you cannot see or touch it. It is the most important element because drama can’t exist without it. It is essential that it is created, but it is easily lost.

The use of violence often makes the creation of tension easier, but violence or conflict is not necessary to create tension. There are 4 ways of creating dramatic tension.

Tension of the:

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1. Task

2. Relationship

3. Surprise

4. Mystery

Before a problem in a drama can be resolved, the characters must say and do many things. These tasks make up the action. To make the dramatic action tense, we must:

* Make the task hard – if it is not, the play will be over straight away

* Make the task important – resolving the problem must matter to those in the drama. There must be reasons.

* Make the task fun.

Human Relationships are a central component to the dramatic tension. Thus one of the common sources of tension can be found in the relationships found in the characters.


Dramatic tension often arises from misunderstandings and the consequences that follow. Misunderstandings can be accidental or deliberate. The resolution of the misunderstanding and its result in confusion can be either funny (comedy) or disastrous (tragedy).


Sometimes when people confide in you, you often feel a degree of tension when you bear this secret. This is because secrets bond you together – it’s an act of trust. Revealing a secret can cause extreme tension.


A ceremony or ritual carries its own tension to do with:

* Confirming the importance of the task,

* The rightness and rhythm of doing the task in such a way,

* The crucial fact that ceremony shared by all.

Many dramatic actions have something of ceremony about them, e.g.: eating together. Creating shared rituals helps to slow down dramatic tension.


The tension of dilemma results from conflict within the situation. As characters strive to achieve their goals, they are often confronted by conflicting choices, called dilemmas, where decisions have to be made and consequences have to be faced. The dilemma may be:

* Moral – is it right that this character escapes?

* Social – if we rescue Smith, will it help or hinder us?

* Personal – I am a jailer, but I believe this person is innocent.


Conflict is the easiest and most common way of creating tension. Conflict may be set up by making characters goals opposing:

* A slave wants his freedom; his mistress wants unpaid workers

* A popstar wants to quit; her manager wants her income

* A woman wants a career; her husband wants babies.

Or the conflict may be one of attitudes within the same person:

* The slave hates his mistress but loves her children

* The popstar hates her manager but knows that she is the best in the business

* The woman wants a career and babies.

But because conflict is the easiest source of tension, it is easy to be led astray. Often personal conflicts and arguments can run away with the drama. They become an end in themselves because neither party is willing to give in. Conflict should be used sparingly to enrich tension.

One of the most common ways of injecting dramatic tension is suddenly to introduce a shock or surprise. The shock releases energy and excitement and the action becomes richer. Surprise can be the result of something unexpected or when something expected suddenly comes out.

Shock of the expected

Everyone anticipates that the inevitable will happen but often when you think everything will be okay, the unexpected happens.

Another aspect of this kind of tension is anticipation

Shock of the unexpected

As the action unfolds and the characters pursue their tasks, something quite unpredictable happens.

* A stranger arrives bringing astonishing news

* Some matter dealt with earlier crops up again

* One of the characters reveals a new side

This unexpected shock creates further tension. But the most dramatic of these unexpected shocks come when your expectations are reversed.

* Your escape plan goes wrong when your tunnel leads to…the Asylum wing

* The poor refugee you have sheltered turns out to be…a war criminal

This kind of reversal can be used late in the drama after strong expectations have been established. But use surprise sparingly as it can be an anticlimax. In most dramas, the build up of tension usually involves the slowing down of action, rather than injecting a sudden crisis.

Dramatic tension can be heightened by mystery: there is something we must discover. Even if we know the outcome, we still experience strong, dramatic tension

The Unknown

It is important to decide what knowledge the actors have whilst performing the role e.g. the players in a hostage drama have decided before hand that the hostages will be released but as the terrorists and hostages don’t know this, you must distinguish between:

* What knowledge the players have

* What knowledge the characters have

* The outcomes if you leave the drama to decide e.g. will the hostages be released or will they escape.


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