Dramatic tension is the result of increasing stakes or consequences, and the apparent ever-increasing probability that the protagonist or a character under threat and/or dire danger, whether physical, emotional, mental or psychological, will fail to win the day, or fail to stay safe, or simply fail.
It is the pleasurable excitement and the on-the-edge anticipation a writer makes the audience member feel when that writer puts that audience member in a position of simultaneously knowing and not knowing – a mystery, a maybe.
It’s when the writer makes that audience member think that something dreadful could occur around the next corner, or under the bed, or behind the curtain, or in the next moment, or with the very next statement uttered.
Will he reach for the knife lying on that table? Is the man holding her in his arms The Maniac Mauler… or not? Will his lover walk out and break his heart? Will her screams be heard by someone, anyone…please, please, please!
Or it’s the tension an audience member feels when the writer puts his audience member in a position of superiority. The audience member knows more than the characters in the story. The audience knows there’s a bomb, and it’s taped underneath the formally set dining room table, and the timer has ticked down to 1:13, but the characters don’t.
The audience member knows the guy is a womanizer, but his latest cute-as-a-button girl-next-door conquest hasn’t a clue.
It’s when the writer puts the audience in a position of wanting to scream at the screen to all those characters in which they have invested their emotions, get out before it’s too late! Don’t kiss him, you fool! Kick the sleazy cad in the gonads!
It’s all about creating the feeling that “it hurts so good,” and the hope that it’s possible, if the bad thing does happen, that there’s still a chance all could still turn out okay for the good guy/gal in the end.