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In my novel my protagonist speaks to a man while being held at gun point. She (protagonist) tried to kill him. He was her boss, was involved in her best friend's death and wants the protagonist dead. He considers her race animals, she tries to reason with him.
Although he is threatening her and her race, they are clearly hostile to each other and she could be killed, they talk normally. I am not sure the scene is tense enough, because they act so calm. So how do I convey tension?

If it helps, I can add part of the conversation (but it will be a translation)

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    Maybe I don't understand, but it seems that you confuse "conversation" with "calm". A conversation can be extremely tense even if the two speakers sit down quietly. Threats, double meaning, innuendos.... words can be harmful and dangerous. – FraEnrico Dec 21 '17 at 12:58
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    @FraEnrico That is the entire question the OP is posing! Your comment should really be an answer. – Chris Sunami Dec 21 '17 at 15:45
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Whether you can pull this off depends on the personality of your characters. Not everyone gets dramatic in a high pressure situation. Some people get very calm. If you've established your character as someone who is cool-blooded and focused (or alternately, as someone who is usually NEVER cool-blooded and focused) this could be a strong scene for her.

There's always something that betrays tension however. Physical tells (like in poker) include things like clenched fists, pursed lips, a twitch in the eye, or a strained tone of voice. The verbal tells for someone who is very controlled can sometimes be paradoxical. I personally tend to get exaggeratedly polite when I'm angry. Some people can appear very casual, or make little jokes. Another way to show tension is to let a little of it leak out around the sides --a sudden explosion of anger or a curse word inserted into a sentence by someone who doesn't usually curse.

I would suggest both the book and movie version of Remains of the Day as good studies for this --the main character is an ultra-repressed English butler with an obsession with being perfect at all times. The only moment in the movie where his emotions really break through is when he drops and breaks a vintage bottle of wine. It's significant only in context --it's the only time you see him not be perfect. But just because of that, it's a very memorable and tense moment. You also might find this essay relevant (Beyoncé, from her Lemonade album).

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Tension in a conversation is created by disagreement, rejection of arguments, attitude (hatred, resentment), misunderstanding, confusion, attempts to convince or sway somebody that fall on deaf ears, including offers of bribery (monetary, sexual, information or other services) that do not work, or are considered.

Tension is created by clashes, IF the reader cannot predict with certainty how they will turn out.

In your case, I suspect you are engaged in "false jeopardy" since your MC is the one in supposed danger, unless this occurs in the last few pages of the book. 007 is never killed halfway through the movie. If he jumps out of a plane without a parachute, he will not hit the ground. If somebody puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger, it will be empty or misfire or the shooter will be killed before the gun fires.

False jeopardy is very difficult to pull off, your readers will only be interested in how your MC gets out of it, and if it is all conversation with somebody that has already murdered someone else for the same reason, and fears being killed by your protagonist? I personally would find that impossible to do with even a shred of plausibility.

  • That's why you should always put something loosable in danger. Give 007 a kitten – Andrey Dec 21 '17 at 18:00
  • I don't see how this answers the question – Andrey Dec 21 '17 at 18:01
  • @Andrey I don't think you can be serious. The question is "how do I convey tension?" The first two paragraphs of m\y answer are many ways one can convey tension in a conversation. The rest is a friendly note explaining why the situation the OP sets up may be very difficult to create tension, due to the fact that any reader knows (from long experience with reading stories) that the protagonist is in ZERO danger of actually being killed, and at worst may suffer a recoverable injury. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 21 '17 at 18:38
  • I understand what you are saying, I just don't see how that applies to conversations. False Jeopardy is usually something felt in action scenes where after many threats no one gets hurt. Conversations rarely have this problem, and the threat presented can often be to anything else important that is not the protagonist, because the protagonist is safe in a place to have the conversation in the first place. My mind goes to Seven. I feel like your answer makes huge assumptions about the entire work haing lost tension, and not just the conversation – Andrey Dec 21 '17 at 19:31
  • @Andrey You are wrong, "false jeopardy" is when the audience knows the lead character won't get seriously hurt. Batman or Robin will never be lowered into the molten steel by the Joker. This applies to this conversation because the situation is a gun is held on the main character of the novel, that will never be removed from the story if it is not the final pages. That makes it hard to build tension because the "threat" is fake. As far as something else being important to the hero: That is not what the OP claims to be writing! You are jumping off topic. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 21 '17 at 20:10
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Try describing the physical reactions ... elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, trouble thinking.

And maybe the one holding the gun is calmer because he's getting what he wants - or is more nervous because he has trouble with the idea of killing.

But if you describe what your characters are feeling physically, you can impart the tension they're feeling emotionally.

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In a tense situation, especially a physically dangerous one, your senses sharpen, your mind races, you watch everything and try to read as much as you can into the danger so you can predict what will happen and save yourself. One way to communicate tension would be to bring the reader into the perspective of one of the characters (if you haven't already) and show the rapid calculations and guesses taking place. In the perspective of the woman at gunpoint, she might notice his white knuckles as he grips the gun too hard, or a flash of anger in his eyes, when she says something that sets him off. She might see a flicker of confusion pass across his face when she says something that gets through to him a little. She might notice him shift his stance nervously, see the pulse hammering in the hollow of his neck, beads of sweat at his temples. She might feel her own stomach turn to ice, or fingernails digging into her palms as she clenches her fists, etc.

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I am going to add my two cents, half a year later, because I haven't seen this said out right yet:

You can't create tension by changing the conversation, not really.

If there isn't tension in the scene, the situation is the problem, not the conversation.

Tension requires two things and two things only

  1. A character your readers care about
  2. Uncertainty in that character's fate

To drive this point home, there is a really creative and suspenseful "gun to your head scene" from the movie Sonatine, in which the conversation involved is 'calm'. I am willing to bet that I can show you two short clips from the film, one to get you to care about the characters, and one to make you uncertain about their fate, and you will feel suspense even without seeing the rest of the film.

Just a little context, the characters are whats left of a yakuza gang, in hiding due to a gang war gone wrong, and you find out near the beginning of the film that almost everyone they cared about recently died. The older character in the clips is the leader of the gang.

Here is the first clip of them goofing off on the beach to get you to care about the characters.

Here is the second clip to get you uncertain about their fate.

Suspense.

There is hardly any dialogue; the suspense doesn't come from the conversation. In reality, there isn't even a real threat. The suspense comes from the fact that we care about the characters and we don't know whats going to happen.

So how can you apply this to your scene? Make sure your readers care about the character who has the gun pointed at them, and then make sure that your readers are uncertain about whether the gun will go off somehow. Here are some ideas.

  • You could do this by bringing up the question of whether or not the boss has it in him to kill way earlier in the novel, and throughout. Maybe he is guilty about killing her friend, and isn't sure if he is ready to kill again.

  • Maybe you could show, somehow, that the gun is broken and might go off at any moment even if the boss doesn't pull the trigger, and may not go off even if he does, showing this many scenes earlier so it doesn't feel artificial, and maybe making the characters unaware.

  • You could make the boss psychotic; maybe he flips a coin or plays Russian roulette instead of killing her out right. This one is a bit cliche, but it can clearly work if Sonatine, The Dark Knight, and Bang! Bang! You're Dead are anything to go by.

The point is, tension doesn't come from a well written and believable conversation; tension comes from an uncertain and believable situation.

Don't get me wrong, a well written conversation can do a lot for a scene like this. A conversation can make the situation sadder, or funnier, or creepier, or more disgusting, or happier, or make us hate the boss more, or love the boss more, or love the mc more, but it can't in and of itself make it more tense.

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As author Eric T. Benoit once said, your job as a writer isn’t to convey emotion, but to invoke it. Trying to convey emotion more often than not leads to tired clichés of clenched fists and sweat dripping down the characters’ brows, etc. The only emotion you’re likely to invoke in your reader is that of boredom.

As with keeping your readers’ interest throughout the rest of your novel, you keep their interest through a dialogue by dangling the carrot the in front of them, building up the double-entendres, quid pro quos, veiled threats and misunderstandings, and generally not giving your audience what they want. This in turn makes them feel tense. Because damn it, what’s going to happen next?

Quentin Tarantino is a renowned master of suspense and tension, and if you haven’t watched Inglourious Basterds I would highly recommend you pay attention to two scenes in particular.

The first is the opening scene, where an SS Colonel hunting Jews in France speaks with a dairy farmer. For the most part the two characters talk about cows, milk, and smoking their pipe, while only vaguely broaching the actual topic at hand. They talk about rather inconsequential stuff. Yet I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, as was just about everyone else in the theater. When the farmer finally breaks and reveals the location of the Jewish family he’s been hiding, a loud, collective “NO!” went out through the audience.

How did Tarantino achieve this? By skirting the issue and beating around the bush. By having a fantastic actor in the role of an SS Colonel that acts and looks a creep. By letting you know that the farmer was lying to protect a Jewish family. By making you wonder how much longer he could keep his composure. By dragging out the scene, knowing full-well that the longer it went, the lower the likelihood of a positive outcome. But most importantly, by making you falsely believe that the good guys had won, then immediately going on some racist diatribe.

And that’s an important point: if someone says something to piss off your protagonist, then your reader should be pissed off too, or experience an equally strong, similar emotion. But if you’re worried about offending your audience you’re going to have a very hard time writing anything interesting.

There is another scene later on where the characters are just playing some funny drinking game in a bar. The same tricks are used for the most part, and once again I (along with the rest of the theater) was on the edge of my seat.

You may or may not like Tarantino’s work, but his two Academy Awards were given for screenwriting. So learn it from the best!

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