Lessons From Lion King: Creating Tension

“Oh no, Mufasa. Perhaps you shouldn’t turn your back on me.”

*Mufasa roars* “Is that a challenge?”

“Temper, temper. I wouldn’t dream of challenging you.”

In the second scene of the movie, Scar has already hinted at his intentions. A few scenes later, he outright tells his audience what he plans to do: kill Mufasa’s line and seize Pride Rock for himself. So now I ask you, is this good or bad storytelling?

Beginning Writers and PTO

I remember when I was really young and writing: every story needed a dramatic plot twist that would shock my readers. I wanted something that readers would never see coming and would be gleeful when I succeeded. That was good storytelling…right? It didn’t matter to me that my readers couldn’t see the twist coming because I never set it up that way. I had a bad case of PTO: plot twist obsession.

I feel like a lot of young writers share the same attitude that I listed above. Maybe this need to shock is why there is always an obsession with killing off

Cover of "On Becoming a Novelist"

the favorite characters in writing. How often do the deaths actually have a purpose in the story? How often do these deaths motivate another character to do something later on in the story, or act as that agent that says “no” to your main character? In “On Becoming a Novelist,” John Gardner says this, “You should leave your reader wondering what your characters will do next, not what will happen to them next.” (Loose paraphrase!)

Think about that for a moment. Do you see how that relates to PTO? A plot twist may leave your reader shocked, but it is usually on the “what will happen” side of things. So why is that important? Keep reading on.

Creating Tension (as shown in TLK)

It’s not that I’m against a well thought-out plot twist; I’m really against missed opportunities to create tension. Let’s examine the Lion King from both perspectives. In the movie, we know that Scar has a plot to kill both Mufasa and Simba, so let’s fast-forward to when Scar and little Simba are both in the gorge together. Pause right there!

What are you feeling right now? A little apprehensive, a little squirmy, perhaps? That, my friends, is tension. Why? That’s a no-brainer: innocent Simba is trying to wheedle information from his murderous uncle about a “surprise.”

Now let’s rewind. Let’s play this movie from a different angle: from the naive Simba’s perspective. (Remember, the script-writers could have written the movie this way!) We know nothing of Scar’s threat to Mufasa earlier on. As far as we know, Scar is the model, if not enthusiastic, uncle to the future king of the Pridelands. Sure, there was that incident with the graveyard, but surely Uncle Scar didn’t realize there would be hyenas there. We don’t even know that Scar feeds the hyenas sometimes.

So here we are at the gorge again. Scar has a surprise for us! At this point, the only logical conclusion would be that something good is about to happen. Scar leaves. Simba plays with a lizard while practicing his roar. Pause!

What are you feeling now? We’re back at the same point we were the last time we “paused the movie,” except now there is no tension. From a story-writer’s perspective, that’s not good. When the stampede comes, it will be a total shock, but that total shock pales in comparison to what the movie is really like during this part.

Through this exercise, you can hopefully see where the tension is coming from: that expectancy of something really bad to happen. We’re both amused and perturbed by Simba’s playfulness. Doesn’t he know Scar is going to kill him? We cringe when Scar approaches Mufasa. All through these scenes, we’re mesmerized: what will they do? How will they escape?

When I’m watching the movie, I both want and don’t want Mufasa to go into the gorge. I want him to save Simba, but I don’t want him to be a victim of Scar’s trap. This doubles the tension for me. If it weren’t for this tension, the Lion King would not be one of my favorite animated movies.

Creating Tension in an Intimate Point-of-View

Now, as a little bit of caution, you must remember that movies are almost always told in an omnipotent Point-of-View. Usually, you want to write in first-person or first-person limited/intimate. This means that you cannot give the reader any information that your characters do not now. This makes creating tension in this style a little bit harder.

Either your character must know fully what they’re walking into, or they have to be extremely gullible to not figure something out before your readers. (Usually, I wouldn’t recommend the latter option). So should you always have somebody tell your character everything that’s about to happen? Not necessarily.

It takes a lot of practice to learn how to craft tension into your novel. Just like with every other technique, you must write to truly learn how to master it. Sometimes, a true plot twist will be the best option. Just, if you make sure you use a plot twist (especially one resulting in a death) that you force your characters to be caught in the twist for long enough that tension builds that way.

What do you think? Is it better to create tension by letting your readers know what will happen, or spring an unexpected plot twist on your reader instead?

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4 thoughts on “Lessons From Lion King: Creating Tension

  1. Good post. :) I think it’s important to foreshadow the plot twist with subtle hints so it doesn’t burst out of no where. It helps create tension, too.

    • Thank you for the comment! I completely agree with you on the foreshadowing. By the way, can you believe that I’m ridiculously excited for my guest post to go live on your blog?

  2. Arlette says:

    Great post, love the examples of TLK you used for the foreshadowing

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