Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dark Knight & Tension

I saw The Dark Knight a couple of weeks ago, and have been a little haunted by it ever since. It’s disturbing and amazing and as interior as it is exterior, which I think is pretty incredible for a superhero/comic book/action movie.

One of the reviews--I think the NYTimes one, but I’m not sure--had a line that stuck with me as I watched. Superhero movies find both their key and their downfall in the ultimate conflict between the hero and the villain. We all know that’s where it’s going, in any movie of this sort. It’s barreling toward the final showdown. That’s what hooks us, and sometimes it’s what disappoints us. So I had that in mind while watching Dark Knight, and was fascinated by how tense I was through the whole thing, regardless. Even though I knew what the climax was going to be, and even though I knew that somehow Batman had to come out on top, I felt the suspense winding me tighter and tighter, and keeping me on the edge of my seat. (Or, maybe more like curled in a ball in my seat.)

This got me to thinking about building tension and keeping your reader in suspense as far as books go, too. As the old saying goes, there’s only a certain number of stories in the world, and we all know what those stories are. In children’s and YA, maybe even more so than adult, we can often make a good guess as to where any given story is going. Voice and playing within the story make each new one fresh and compelling to readers, but how do they maintain the tension?

I’m not sure I have an answer to that question yet, but my idea is that it has to do with that interior/exterior balance. If we can predict what the exterior climax is going to be, then we need to be surprised by the interior one. Maybe it works the other way around, too. It’s all about the layers, and how they work each on their own and together as a whole. There has to be both friction and connection to keep interest. If we have an idea of how one could go, we need to be surprised by the other. And perhaps this is something that can switch back and forth even within the same work. As the Joker and Batman raced toward their final conflict, the balance of power shifted between them constantly. As the Joker told Batman in their last scene, they need each other to survive; they’re the two sides of human nature, and each needs its foil. Because it goes so psychological, we never really know which one we can trust--extremes in either way can be harmful and wreak havoc. This aspect--the way two sides can push and pull at each other, and the way exterior and interior conflicts do the same--is certainly something to keep in mind for stories that need the suspense to work in the best possible way.

Hunger Games is one that I’ve read recently that does the same thing so well--the whole premise tells us where we’re going as far as final conflict, but Katniss is in such opposition to it, that we are wound tightly through the whole experience as her internal battle intersects with the outside plot events. And it doesn't turn out perfectly--just as Dark Knight didn't turn out entirely great for Batman. Hm...maybe this is one of the reasons Breaking Dawn didn’t so much succeed. But that is a whole different blog post.

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