Writing a story is an interesting mental exercise in placing yourself into another's shoes. To some extent, it is necessary to envision scenes that unfold as though you are an observer or participant. Conveying what your 'witness' however can be difficult. Some scenes are fairly easy to write, or so it seems. After all, a character tying their shoes is an exceptionally boring, mundane task that most anyone can imagine, for example. It is possible that scene regarding footware is a key to something else in your story. It may be, even, that the act of tying shoes is something of a conflict or part of a conflict.
This may sound a little strange, but bear with me for a moment here. Most anyone who has watched the movies that are really popular and classed as 'dramas' can agree that scenes involving firearms are dramatic. What makes those scenes dramatic? Is it the gun? Is it the action surrounding the gun? Or is it how the scene is structured? Some would argue that it is the gun, with its many overtones of violence, that makes the scene dramatic. Some would argue that the action leading up to the gun coming into the picture and the use (or not) of the weapon is what gives the scene it's drama.
The gun is not what makes the scene dramatic, it is a prop. The action is how the drama is conveyed but it can be expressed in other scenes as well. After all, weapons are not what makes Hamlet's soliloquy so powerful. All of these things are the moving parts of the scene. It is the way they all fit together and work that creates what is commonly called 'drama'. Drama is another way to express the tension within a scene. And tension is something that creates stress in the observer, when it is well written.
Painting a scene full of tension does not depend upon implicit or explicit violence. It can come from things as simple as a spinning top. Part of the tension of the scene come from the things that lead up to it. In the case of the final scene from the movie Inception, we find that the protagonist - Dominic (Dom) Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio is in a position where he is questioning the reality of his situation. DiCaprio portrays the character's anxiety by way of body language that conveys his distress and keeping a general tone of uncertainty. His walk through the airport is an exceptionally mundane thing but he remains unsettled through out it. When we reach the portion of the scene where the top is set spinning, the character has a measure of quiet desperation that is nearly palpable.
The tension in this scene is exceptional. Some of it is expressed by way of the music that accompanies it, but if you view the scene with out audio, you can still pick up on it. The composition of the scene is built in a steady rise of action (though it is subtle here) that reaches its peak which is where all of the foundational elements combine to present the exquisite agony the character experiences in that moment. You can tell from how DiCaprio portrays the character that they are experiencing some kind of crisis. Given the way the characters around him behave, it it apparent that this crisis is something internal and personal to the protagonist. It truly is, in my opinion, an exceptional bit of writing.
The tension created is built in a juxtaposition between what is expected and what is presented. It could be described as related to irony, but that is its own class of beast, to be honest. Feeding the readers (or in the case of a movie, the viewers) information that shows the characters in a precarious situation of some sort is the basis of establishing dramatic tension. The precariousness of the situation can be high or low. As the scene progresses, however, the apparent risk to the protagonist increases until a point of crisis is reached. At which point there is resolution of the crisis or an abrupt shift in focus (which is commonly called a plot twist), which then leads the reader into the next scene in the story.
Daily life can have its moments fraught with tension but they are interspersed with a great deal of boredom. In writing a story, there is the risk of putting too much emphasis upon the minor details and boring your readers between the scenes of high tension. The way to avoid this (and thereby avoid losing your reader's interest) is by cutting the supporting details down to that which is necessary to set up the crisis. It can be accomplished by shortening the apparent time frame of a scene's unfolding. It can be accomplished by limiting the amount of what is described.
Building tension between characters and the other elements in the story (be it each other or something in the environment) is a case where less is more. A sparse description of the scene may not be satisfactory to write, but it can help focus the reader's attention on the action, for example. This is one of the strengths of Shakespearean plays and in classical theater in general. The audience is not overwhelmed with various competing elements of the scene. They are instead forced to follow the principal action of the scene and become emotionally invested in the consequences of the scene. This is illustrated very well in the mad scene from Lucia Di Lammermoor.
The spartan way the set is arranged and the way that the character of Lucia is visually separated from the others by way of her costume and her physical distance from the others forces the viewer to focus upon her. The fact that for the majority of the scene, Lucia is singing a solo aria (one of the most technically demanding that have been written and possibly the best of Donizetti's work) only strengthens the focus upon her character. The break that Lucia has with reality becomes apparent in her behavior even as the lyrics show she is hallucinating. All of these elements serve to both make the viewer understand the depth of Lucia's anguish and draw them into Lucia's suffering to ideally make them pity her character. Through out the entire scene, it is an apparent movement from anguish to madness to her collapse and death.
The scene moves quickly through its different parts. The transitions are smooth and feel natural for it. Similar things can be accomplished through the written form with appropriate pacing and careful attention to transitions within the scene and leading up to it. The art of dramatic tension is a careful interplay between showing what the characters are experiencing along with what the problem is and keeping the action of the scene paced quickly enough that the readers do not become bored. It is not something that can be mastered with a single rough draft. Careful editing and revision will polish a scene that has the potential to be filled with a great deal of pathos so that the tensions running through it will be illuminated.
I apologize if this post comes off as a bit rough. I had some difficulty getting it written today. Please, sound off in the comments. Share with us what you think is the best example of dramatic tension in your favorite media. Let everyone know what you think is crucial to creating a scene that really hooks your audience.