Steven James (author of Story Trumps Structure) says that tension is at the heart of every story. He says that stories are not “plot-driven” or “character-driven” as people often argue, but that unresolved tension is at the heart of any good story.
The main character wants something that they can’t have. The story will progress and escalate until the main character either 1) succeeds, or 2) fails to get what they want. Once this has been resolved, the story is finished.
So I tried to think of a couple famous stories and apply the “driven by tension” principle.
In The Odyssey, it’s pretty simple: all Odysseus wants is to GET HOME. It’s been a long war, a long journey, and he wants to get home to his wife. Unfortunately his enemies get in the way. The Gods lay traps and tricks to keep him lost at sea. His own crew gets in the way. His own pride and fear and passion get him into trouble.
The most interesting part, to me, as that when we apply this “tension” principle, it becomes pretty obvious that as soon as Odysseus GETS HOME, then the story is going to be finished. There’s no more story! He’s either going to get home or die trying, and the reader will follow faithfully through every twist and turn until that point.
In the television series Breaking Bad, we know what Walter White wants. He wants to provide for his family; he wants his family to be proud of him; and he wants to leave a legacy, to be remembered as a great man and not a failure.
The character arc of Walter White (I think) is what makes Breaking Bad so fascinating and so satisfying for us to watch. We follow Walter White through years of dramatic ups and downs. We know the tension in his heart. We know that he’s either going to get what he wants, or he’s going to die trying.
Like The Odyssey, Breaking Bad is bound to end when either 1) Walter White succeeds, or 2) he dies trying.
As watchers of the show, we would be completely unsatisfied if neither of those things happened. But as long as the tension is resolved, in one way or another, for better or worse, we can walk away feeling warm and fuzzy and cuddly inside.