Tensity in Storytelling

As someone who works in advertising during the day and writes fiction at night, I'm often struck by the crossover potential of so many tools and techniques to strengthen my work in both fields. Creative fiction and brand campaigns are both different kinds of stories, and there are some concepts in advertising that I've realized can also be utilized to create compelling fiction.

There is a Y&R consultancy, the Brand Asset Valuator® (BAV®) Group, that tracks how brands are perceived by the public and how those perceptions shift over time. They've discovered that the most successful brands have an inherent tension which makes them interesting, memorable, and irresistible. They defined this as Brand Tensity®.

Brand Tensity: The convergence of two or more contradictory forces, resulting in excitement, anticipation, and a palpable energy.

As a process honed by the BAV Group, Brand Tensity is a proprietary tool. The database, research, and analysis are all essential, it's not something that can be invented on a whim. Luckily, writers don't have to rely on real-world analysis when creating stories from scratch. We don't need "Brand Tensity" with capital letters, but we can apply the concepts of "tensity" to improve tension from the inside-out.

A storyteller could choose a tensity first, and then build a character around it. They could also use tensity as a lens to understand an existing character's contradictory aspects, and consciously hone their inherent tension.


Meaning vs. Message

Tension is something that storytellers already use to keep readers turning the page, but the concept of tensity is a bit more focused. It looks at the contradiction as a positive force that keeps the audience engaged, and is often achieved by managing opposites: one is the meaning, and the other is the message.

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For example, no one can deny that Marilyn Monroe was a seductive character. Her persona was one of sexual availability, but presented in a package of innocent naiveté. This was a conscious choice made in direct response to the femme fatales who were so popular in the 1940s, the kind of women who were as enticing as they were dangerous. In contrast, Marilyn was so innocent and vapid, often wide-eyed and childlike, that she made sex appeal non-threatening again.

Norma Jeane Mortenson and Fox Studios were smart enough to tap into the cultural significance of this contrast, and helped define a new kind of sex appeal for the 1950's. They were so successful in creating an icon that more than 50 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe is still irresistible and relevant to modern audiences.


Tensity in Worldbuilding

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The setting can often be a character unto itself. In the wizarding world of Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling contrasted the magical against the mundane. She cast a new light on everyday tasks (like sending mail, shopping for school supplies, and even going to the bank) by repackaging them to make them extraordinary.

Star Wars merged mystical mythology and ancient religion with the classic science fiction elements of blasters and spaceships.

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The famous opening line of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities created tension from the very first page by highlighting the contrasting experiences between the gentry and the proletariat during the French Revolution, pitting prosperity against destitution.

Dr. Seuss used logical rhyming structures to talk of nonsense and insanity, creating a wonderfully dynamic contradiction.


Tensity in Characters

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Napoleon Dynamite occupies the role of an awkward outcast and underdog that we painfully remember from high school, yet he has such audacious confidence, we can't help but love him.

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Elle Woods from Legally Blond is a stereotypical, ditzy fashionista, but over the course of the movie she demonstrates that she's clever, and fast learner. The conflict between her appearance and her abilities forces her to prove herself in areas outside of her comfort zone, which makes her a compelling character to watch.

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Star Wars, the original trilogy, relied on some classic archetypes that already contain tensity. Luke Skywalker is the typical hero from humble beginnings, a "chosen one" who is raised in obscurity on a farm until he's ready to reclaim his birthright. He's presented as an everyman, yet he's a hero in waiting.

Leia Organa is a sophisticated princess who appears at first to be the damsel-in-distress, but she's no passive ingénue. She's smart, tough, and takes command of every situation.

Han Solo starts out as a money-loving egotist, but when the stakes are high, he's there for his friends. He's presented as a rogue, but proves his reliability through his actions.

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Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi is a classic sage warrior, a man who is as much a philosopher as a fighter.

C-3PO is a protocol droid programmed to assist with etiquette across a multitude of sentient species, but his actions are often inconsiderate. He shares demoralizing odds, he inserts himself into intimate moments, and he's even condescending to his best friend.

It's no accident that the most loyal character in the Star Wars universe also looks the least human. R2-D2 isn't a biped, and can't even communicate in spoken words, yet he goes above and beyond to help his friends over three generations of Skywalker drama.

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In the DC Comics universe, Batman is called the "dark knight" for good reason. He's a hero with a very dark side of his own, embracing a symbol of fear to protect the innocent.

Superman is an alien with epic powers, but he was raised on a farm in a small town in Kansas.

Wonder Woman is a warrior whose compassion is both her greatest strength, and her greatest weakness.


Going Beyond Appearances

It can be easy to latch on to a character's superficial attributes as a foundation to build tensity, but you can create an even richer character by probing deeper to explore what those attributes should represent.

For example, the first thing anyone notices about Miss Piggy is that she's a literal pig. The cultural perception of swill-eating swine versus the fabulous way she is presented, in lipstick and pearls, provides an interesting contrast. But simply putting pearls on swine is not enough to make Miss Piggy a compelling character. It doesn't help to define her personality, only her appearance.

The creators chose to focus on what the porcine part of her represents, which may explain why she became what Jim Henson called "a fascinating phenomenon" that defied all their expectations.

Frank Oz, the original voice and puppeteer for Miss Piggy, chose to define her as a wannabe starlet from very rustic beginnings, one who is ultimately talentless. In a 1990 interview, Oz said:

The reason she's funny is she covers her pain. Because realistically; she's a pig, she's a single woman alone in the big city, she has a frog who doesn't overtly love her...she can't sing, she can't dance, she can't act very well...and because all that stuff hurts her, she covers it with a lot of style and bravado.

Or, as he put it more simply in a 2011 appearance: "she's coy and feminine, but she's a truck driver underneath."

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As a barnyard diva, Miss Piggy can be spectacularly coarse and unrefined, even karate-chopping her friends when they dare to point out her shortcomings. Yet she has conviction that she deserves the same adulation as an iconic superstar, which gives her an endearing innocence that has resulted in a 40-year career.


Tensity in Situation

Tensity can also help to define the challenges that protagonists must face. Compelling stories often feature a character who ends up in a situation completely outside of their comfort zone, because rarely are we excited to watch someone easily handle a problem that they are perfectly prepared to solve. Even characters who are highly capable must face obstacles that challenge them physically and emotionally.

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When Luke Skywalker is getting ready to leave Tatooine with Ben at the start of his journey, he announces that he wants to become a Jedi knight like his father. But according to Yoda and Ben, in order to defeat the Empire and save his friends, Luke must confront Darth Vader. Luke's message is that he wants to be his father, but his purpose and meaning as a hero is to destroy his father.

BEN
You cannot escape your destiny. You must face Darth Vader again.
LUKE
I can't kill my own father.
BEN
Then the Emperor has already won. You were our only hope.

Have you ever wondered why Luke's destiny is to defeat Darth Vader, and not the Emperor? In the large scheme of the conflict between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, Vader is just the Emperor's right-hand man. Even if Luke succeeded in destroying Vader, the Emperor would either kill or recruit Luke, and remain a dangerous obstacle to the rebellion. It's illogical to force Luke to confront Vader while completely ignoring the threat of the Emperor. Yet emotionally, it makes perfect sense.

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Stories are often the most satisfying when a protagonist has the odds stacked completely against them, when they are the least likely person to be able to accomplish the task at hand because they must journey through their own "personal hell" to succeed. Who is the one person least likely to kill Vader? His own son, who wants to be just like him. When Luke is forced to defeat his father, not the Emperor, we have a more interesting story with emotional tension at the core.

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Robin Hood is another example. Circumstance and a deep sense of loyalty to King Richard force him to become a criminal, not only to spark a rebellion to a false crown, but also to fund philanthropic aid to the victims of Prince John's corruption. Robin is a philanthropic savior who is loyal to the true crown, yet he is forced to adopt the persona of an outlaw.

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When Charlie Chaplin created the Tramp during the silent film era, he understood the power of contrast. With baggy pants and a tight coat, large shoes and a small hat, Chaplin said about his wardrobe: "I wanted the clothes to be a mass of contradictions, knowing pictorially the figure would be vividly outlined on the screen."

Yet Chaplin went beyond appearance, defining the Tramp as a working-class klutz who longed for the romance of the middle class, but was constantly undermined by his own poor circumstances (often the result of his own bad luck and clumsy labor). As he put it, the Tramp "wears an air of romantic hunger, forever seeking romance, but his feet won't let him."


Tensity in Transformation

Stories are about change. When characters must go through their own personal hell to achieve their goals, it fundamentally alters them. Tensity can exist within the character's journey itself, and either force them to adopt a persona that's contrary to their true self, or to find their essence in contrast to their persona.

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Consider Léon from The Professional, a contract killer who adopts the role of a nurturing caregiver.

Or Chief Brody in Jaws, an aquaphobe who must overcome his fear of the water to kill a literal sea monster.

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Brad Bird, who wrote and directed The Iron Giant, famously said that the idea came to him when he wondered: "what if a gun didn't want to be a gun anymore?" His story is about a devastating weapon that chooses peace.

Rick from Casablanca starts out as a cynical ex-patriot who wants nothing to do with either side of the war, yet once he's able to face the pain of his past and get over his broken heart, he becomes the sacrificial sentimentalist that Captain Renault accuses him of being.


Tensity in Conflict

By now we have a pretty clear understanding of how tensity can work as a lens to identify opposing forces, but what happens when different tensities collide? This is where it gets really interesting.

When I looked at the potential for conflict itself to have tensity, I was struck by multiple examples in which the "message" portion of each character was holding them back from embracing their "meaning." The most satisfying relationship stories (whether about lovers, family, or friends) are about individuals who complete some portion of each other, which means that each of them must have something the other one lacks. It makes sense that such characters would have conflicting tensities.

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Disney's Frozen is a great example. Elsa is arguably the character most in need of love, yet out of fear of getting close to others and hurting them through her uncontrollable powers, she rejects all love. Anna has an abundance of love, but Elsa's rejection and their parents' deaths leave her very lonely, so she is ironically desperate for love.

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Put the two of them together, and it creates a beautiful storytelling circle wherein the messages they embody—rejection and desperation—put them in conflict, cause them to make mistakes, and land them both in mortal peril. It's only when they reject their outward expressions of rejection and desperation, and embrace who they are, that they discover they complete one another. Anna's abundance provides the love that Elsa lacks, giving her what she needs to control her powers.

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In Titanic, Rose is a spoiled socialite who feels shackled by her high-class life, and dreams about the thrill of freedom and the unknown. Jack is a penniless vagabond with ten bucks in his pocket and no place to call home, yet he has more autonomy than Rose could ever dream of. Their main conflict stems from her adherence to her social duty, so when she's able to drop the pretense of affluence and look past Jack's poverty, his autonomous lifestyle perfectly meets her desperate desire for freedom, giving her the confidence to break her own shackles.

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In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Elliott has trouble empathizing with how other people feel. Then he meets a creature with the power to literally share emotions with others, but who's been abandoned by his friends. Their conflict is in opposing desires—E.T. wants to go home, but Elliott selfishly wants to keep him. When E.T.'s abilities finally teach Elliott what it's like to understand how others feel, this conflict is canceled out and he becomes the friend E.T. needs, willing to sacrifice his own desires to do what's right.

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Conflict between tensities doesn't just exist between friends. Multiple storylines in comics, movies, and video games have explored how Batman and the Joker are basically two sides of the same coin. The Joker values chaos and absurdity, Batman values order and meaning. The Joker performs seemingly random acts of violence, yet they are consciously orchestrated to corrupt the civil order of society and expose the raw absurdity of it all. He constantly pushes Batman to the edge, trying to shove him over the precipice into abandoning his morals, yet time and again Batman proves himself to be incorruptible.

Because neither of them will change, and neither will compromise their own value system, Batman and the Joker are destined to do this dance forever. The tension within this character conflict has helped sustain the franchise for almost eighty years.


Tensity in Absentia

What happens if a character has no recognizable tensity? Let's go back to the Star Wars universe one more time and compare two characters: Yoda when he was first introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, and Jar Jar Binks when he was first introduced in The Phantom Menace.

On paper, they have a lot in common. They're both long-eared, greenish aliens who live on swamp-like planets. They both have high-pitched, gravelly voices with unusual accents. They're both secondary characters who help guide the protagonists on the path toward victory.

Remember that when we first meet Yoda, he's funny, impish, thieving, annoying, and quirky—very similar to Jar Jar, in fact. So why is it that Yoda became an instantly beloved character, while Jar Jar is so universally despised?

Yoda is small, unassuming, and mischievous. When we first meet him, rummaging through Luke's supplies, he seems like a humble, clueless vagabond. He even gets into a tug of war with R2-D2, whacking the droid with a harmless stick.

Yet when his true identity and powers are revealed, he becomes a world-weary soul, heavy with the burden of galactic events. The mischievous imp transforms into the wise old master.

A 1980 review of The Empire Strikes Back in The New Yorker described him as:

...The big-eared green elf Yoda, with shining ancient eyes, who pontifically instructs Luke in how to grow up wise—Yoda looks like a wonton and talks like a fortune cookie.

This contradiction is exactly what George Lucas originally intended. He wanted to create an unassuming little creature who doesn't seem like much, but turns out to be incredibly powerful, and consciously tapped into a classic fairy tale archetype.

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By contrast, Jar Jar Binks is a bumbling fool whose defining trait is his dumb luck. There's no tension, because he exists entirely within an archetype of the buffoon, primarily serving as the comic relief. Even in later films when his clumsiness is toned down significantly, his role in the plot is still one of the fool.

When someone on Reddit posted a theory that Jar Jar Binks is actually an undercover Sith lord who masterminded Palpatine's rise to power, it went viral, and garnered reactions like this:

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Why is Jar Jar's annoying persona now suddenly brilliant? Because now he has tensity! This new dimension puts his defining trait into an entirely new context—it isn't dumb luck, it's calculated evil, which is in perfect contrast to the bumbling fool archetype. This contradiction makes for a much more interesting character.

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Tensity and Tropes

Now for a word of warning: don't use tensity to reinforce tropes. Tropes are storytelling stereotypes, often cliché and overused, and at times even harmful. They can work well as a shorthand that helps an audience recognize characters or situations, but they can also enforce stereotypes about race, gender, ability, and identity.

I've found that tensity can manifest as a way for well-meaning storytellers to combat harmful labels by providing contrary characteristics, but when they are overused, they tend to reinforce stereotypes rather than subvert them.

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One such trope is the "action girl," or "strong female character," created to subvert society's expectations of women and girls. She's powerful, despite the perception that women should occupy little space both physically and in the cultural conversation. She's rebellious, while women are expected to be submissive and unassuming. She's strong, while women are expected to be weak, etc. This archetype pops up repeatedly in pop culture.

Of course this doesn't mean that strong females necessarily make bad characters, but if you're going to embrace this trope, make sure your protagonist has more dimension than simply being "a girl who does things a girl isn't supposed to do." She needs motivation, character development, and other dimensions to make her a well-rounded character.

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Another trope is the "noble savage," most often applied to characters from tribal, native, or first nations cultures. If they weren't unfairly considered "savage" in the first place, then adding the modifier "noble" would have no inherent tension.

This trope casts such characters as proud people, wise in their understanding of nature and humanity's relationship to it, yet uncivilized because they lack industrialization. They have a philosophical perspective that the (often white, often male) protagonist has yet to learn, even though they lack the same Euro-centric education. And though they are warriors, they almost always need to be saved with help from the (often white, often male) protagonist.

We find this in "white savior" narratives like Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Avatar, wherein the newcomer has to save the wise natives from his own corrupt society. Often he is better at "being native" than the natives themselves.

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A few more tropes: the "badass gay," who demonstrates "manliness" in contrast to his homosexuality.

The "inspirationally disadvantaged," who is inspiring because of their disability, not despite it.

And the "wrench wench," who has an uncanny talent for understanding machinery that is supposed to exist primarily within the domain of men.

To avoid tropes, you can give your character a test: try changing their race, sexual orientation, identity, ability, gender, or any other demographic. If the tensity no longer works, then there is probably a stereotype you need to weed out. Tensity should be born from a character's situation, role, or the personality traits that make them unique from anyone else—not from attributes they cannot change.


In Conclusion

If you're a writer who wants to add another tool to your storytelling arsenal, try using tensity as a lens to examine how your characters are seen versus who they are.

  • Can you describe your character in two contrasting words or ideas?
  • Is there enough contradiction to make them memorable, or can you push it even further?
  • Do they subvert expectations, or perhaps put a new twist on an old archetype?
  • What is the essence of the role they play in your story, and what does that role represent versus how it's portrayed?
  • How does their tensity clash with those of other major characters, and does conflict rise organically out of those clashes?
  • Does their tensity change over the course of their character arc, or is it reinforced as they embrace their essence?
  • Does it emerge from their personality, or the situation in which they find themselves?
  • How is it illuminated by other characters, or the trials they must go through?

If there is one takeaway from my explorations into this topic, it's that tensity is everywhere. Storytellers already understand the inherent power of tension to build interest, so contradiction is not difficult to find once we know what to look for. Adding tensity to our toolkit, and using it consciously, can help us contextualize that tension and push it even further to create truly memorable stories.