Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What “Mama” Can Teach Us About Tension & Suspense

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Once in a while, a story comes along that blows me away. It might be a novel, a movie, a game, or a TV show, but how it’s written or structured illustrates an aspect of storytelling that expands my writer’s mind.

The film, Mama, by Andrés and Barbara Muschietti is one such story.

If you haven’t seen it, the basic premise is this: Two young girls abandoned in the woods are rescued by a tormented spirit who decides to raise them as her own. When the girls are found five years later, things get…complicated.

Although classified as horror, this film is really more physiological suspense in the “peek through your fingers while on the edge of your seat” way. It will utterly creep you out, but also make you laugh so hard you can’t breathe. And it makes you care—deeply.

This is why it’s a brilliant film, so let’s dig in a little more. Minor spoilers if you haven’t seen it, but I’ll do my best not to give anything away since I encourage everyone to go right out and rent this.

What’s so good about Mama:

1. An antagonist you sympathize with, even though everything says you probably shouldn’t

Mama is a tortured spirit, but she saves small children (one and three years old) and cares for them when they would have otherwise died. But she also has that homicidal side that’s not especially kid-friendly. You know all this, see how bad she can truly be, but you still wish they could all just live happily ever after. You care about Mama’s goal, even when she’s freaking you out by her creepiness.

Why it’s so brilliant: Let’s face it, the writers made me care about a murderous spirit. I wanted her to get what she wanted. When she did bad things, I literally cried out, “Mama, why?” and wanted her to just get along with everyone.

Lesson learned:
Antagonists with relatable goals can make readers care more deeply about what’s going on in the story.

(Here’s more on creating relatable antagonists)

2. Masterful pacing and manipulation of tension

By the end of this movie, you’ll feel like you ran a marathon. It puts you through the emotional wringer, but you enjoy every nervous step, because you never know what the payoff for the build up will be. Sometimes it’s a scare, but just as often it’s something funny or flat out adorable.

Scenes creep by when we need to feel every step, but they rush when the intent is to make us gasp. And sometimes, one comes immediately after the other, so before long, the slower scenes are almost more tense than the ones that take your breath away. You know something’s about to happen and have no idea what it will be or how it will make you feel.

Why it’s so brilliant: Every scene is created to evoke emotion from the viewer, and the writers/director vary that emotion. The result is a wonderful rise and fall of feelings and anticipation that draw you in and holds you there.

Lesson learned:
Tension isn’t a ramp, it’s a series of waves, and how we manipulate those waves creates our tension. Variety in both types of tension, and the speed of our pacing can create much richer stories.

(Here’s more on creating tension)

3. Never knowing what to expect, because it defies expectations

This is one aspect that added to the tension, but it deserves its own mention. Unpredictability is often difficult because there are only so many logical things that can happen in a scene. With Mama, you were never sure where the story was going to go, because Mama had such a strong and compelling story arc herself. She could win, because you cared about what happened to her.

Why it’s so brilliant: It played off viewer expectations in a masterful way. You think “evil spirit,” but Mama defies that by her love for these children. She acts in ways you don’t expect spirits to act, and the children she’s saved treat her as Mama, and not an evil spirit. Those relationships change everything.

Mix in the varied emotions, and you’re laughing at things that are scary, gasping at things that are sweet, and crawling out of your skin and things that are completely normal. It turns what you know and how you feel upside down.

Lesson learned:
Look for the unexpected in your stories and don’t fall back on clichés or stereotypes, or even classic tropes. The more you surprise your readers, the more you draw them into the story because they’ll be dying to know what happens next—and be unable to guess.

(Here’s more on unpredictability and plot twists)

4. Incredibly well-rounded conflict not based on good vs evil or bad vs good

This is where so much of the genius of the movie springs from. The conflicts are real, human, and based in complex (yet simple) emotions. Who can’t understand the love and devotion of a mother for her children? Who can’t understand the loyalty those children would feel for their mother? But that becomes something much more complicated when you add in the spirit aspect and an uncle who also loves his nieces and wants them to be safe and happy. And then there’s his girlfriend who never wanted to be a mom, but is now struggling with two extremely weird and damaged kids. Every character has a conflict that’s both relatable and understandable, but no one is “evil.” Not even Mama.

Why it’s so brilliant:
No one is trying to be evil in this “horror” film. The conflicts come from a slew of characters who all want what’s best for these two little girls, and all want to do the right thing.

Lesson learned: Sometimes the best conflicts come from people trying to help, not hurt. We tend to think of conflict in terms of “what’s preventing the protagonist from getting what she wants,” but that can be another helpful soul as easily as a hurtful one.

(Here's more on understanding conflict)

5. Layered characters who feel like real people

Every character in this movie could have easily turned into a cliché, but they didn’t, because they were real and layered people. The girlfriend is a perfect example. Her boyfriend (the girl’s uncle) has been searching for his nieces for five years, and she fully supports that even as he’s going broke (where many stories would have made this a source of conflict between them with arguing and antagonism). When he finds the girls, and they’re feral, she sticks by and keeps supporting him. It’s clear this isn’t what she signed up for, but it’s the right thing to do because she loves him, and these girls need help and support.

This character could have become the whiny, bitchy girlfriend, but instead became a rich person struggling to do the right thing under extraordinary circumstances.

Why it’s so brilliant:
There’s actually no “bad guy” in this film. Everyone has an agenda, but they all have the best interests of the children at heart.

Lesson learned:
You can develop well-crafted stories by creating real people with layered, complex emotions and desires. One-dimensional characters will act one dimensionally, and thus become predictable. But rich, layered characters bring more options and interest to the story.

(Here’s more on crafting rich characters)

6. And ending that’s perfect for the story, even if it’s not the ending viewers probably wanted

With a story like Mama, happily ever after would have felt wrong, but so would something dark and depressing. You want so many different things for these characters by the end of the movie, it’s hard to know what a “win” would be. The writers handled it perfectly. You want to cry (and might, I did a little), but you know in your heart that it had to go that way.

Why it’s so brilliant: It doesn’t end the way you want it to, but that’s okay. It has the right ending for the story arcs presented. It’s a rare story that can not give viewers/readers what they want and still satisfy them.

Lesson learned:
What’s right for the characters can also be right for the readers if you’ve set it up correctly. A strong resolution to a well-crafted story arc can be a much more satisfying ending than forcing things to end “right” or “happy” if there’s no basis for it.

(Here’s more on writing the right ending)

If you’re looking for examples on how to create rich, emotional, unpredictable stories, then watch and study Mama. Watch it the first time for the pure enjoyment of it, then watch it again and take notes. It’s like its own mini-master class on tension and storytelling.

Have you seen Mama? What did you think?

Find out more about conflict in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Yess !!! Someone also saw and liked Mama movie!
    It was one of the only movies that I cried, because as you said and well, I wanted the spirit and the others "won". :)

    1. I felt so bad for her. At least she got some happiness in the end.

  2. I agree it is a movie worth watching. I have to thank my son who turned me on it, otherwise I might have never watched it.
    JoBeth Williams (Poltergeist) still remains my favorite movie Mama, "Get away from my babies!"
    And yes, Mama was powerful story telling backed by haunting and disturbing images that stay with you, long after the film is over.
    And I also agree with your perspective regarding the ending - didn't like it. But overall it is a great film.

    1. Williams was a great movie mom for sure. Makes me think a little of Ripley from Aliens when she's defending Newt :)

  3. Adding to my Netflix list right now.

  4. This sounds like EXACTLY the kind of movie and genre I love. Thanks for the recommendation!

    However, I did skim your post and only read the headings because I didn't want spoilers. I may follow up with another comment after I watch it, if I remember.

    1. Good plan :) I tried not to give anything away, but even knowing generally what's coming could spoil some of the fun.

  5. I haven't seen this movie, but it sounds like something I'd be interested in watching. Thanks for sharing. :-)

    1. Most welcome. It's definitely one of those movies for the "must watch" list, just because it's so different.

  6. Thanks to your recommendation, I've ordered it and watched it tonight. Highly recommended..the last 15 minutes were superb.

    1. Glad you liked it! Yep, the end was just heartbreaking, but wonderful as well.

  7. I had not planned to watch this movie (the trailers didn't really look like anything special), but you just made me buy it... ($5 to buy vs $4 to rent on Amazon.)

  8. It´s a lovely story. I know, that´s an odd adjective for a horror movie, but it is, at its core, a love story. Have you seen, The Orphanage? Also a Guillermo Del Toro production, It´s another horror story that tugs at your heartstrings. Thanks for mentioning Mama. I´ll have to watch it again with new writer eyes.

    1. It's a perfect word for it, weird as that is. I haven't seen The Orphanage, but now I'll have to go look for it. Thanks!