Tuesday, September 26, 2017

How Unanticipated Interactions Can Elevate Tension

By Bonnie Randall

Part of the How They Do It Series
(Monthly Contributor)

As an author I watch shows, and certainly read books, with my ‘eye on the prize’; mining for those scenes which contain elements that make the story more powerful, or elevate the tension in replicable ways. Few can rival Shonda Rhimes in employing techniques that make good stories great. Here is an examination of how a scene from what I refer to as ‘The Golden Age of Grey’s Anatomy’ (aka: Seasons 1-5) offers up an unexpected interaction—and thereby jacks the tension, deepens the characters, and forges a more complex connection between the viewer and protag(s)….all within one rapid-fire 1:16 minute clip of a scene we expect to be sedate…yet is anything but.

To set the stage:

We have George, the most soft-spoken and arguably gentlest of the ensemble set of docs, and he’s just experienced the loss of his father. (For those who want to watch the episode in entirety, it is Season 3 Episode 12). After his dad’s last breath, George leaves his room at Seattle Grace then walks the gauntlet between his friends and colleagues who’ve lined the vestibule, all holding vigil. He strides quickly, and we can tell it’s because he does not want to lose it in front of an audience.

Enter now a small bit of backstory: if George is the softie, Christina is the hard-ass. Ambitious, driven, and thoroughly unsentimental, Christina doesn’t hate George, but she doesn’t respect him, either. And he knows it. Further, if George has any respect for Christina, it is only for her abilities as a surgeon—not for her ethics or conduct as a human being. To underscore all of this, as this scene transpires, George and Christina have recently had conflict, and the tension between them is palpable.

Now back to George. He retreats outside on this dark, rainy night, broken from his loss. Now, surely gentle Izzie would be the best person to offer him solace. Or perhaps sweet Meredith. Hell, even unrefined Alex could show up with a manly shot to the shoulder, a ‘Sorry, man’, and we’d get it. We’d expect it. But…instead it’s Christina who follows him into the alley—and here is what happens next:

CHRISTINA: ‘There’s a club. There’s a dead dad’s club, and you can’t be in it till you’re in it.’

GEORGE: [The camera pans to his face which looks both quizzical and stricken]

CHRISTINA: ‘You can try to understand. You can sympathize. But until you feel that loss…. My dad died when I was 9.’

[Beat of silence]

CHRISTINA: ‘George.’ [pause] ‘I’m really sorry you had to join the club.’ 

[Another, lengthier, beat of silence within which we seethe emotions play out on George’s face]

GEORGE: ‘I don’t know how to exist in a world where my dad doesn’t.’

[One last beat of silence]

CHRISTINA: ‘Yeah. That never changes.’

Now let’s break it down:

First of all, listen to her opening line: ‘There’s a club. There’s a dead dad’s club, and you can’t be in it till you’re in it.’ Wait…what? That’s not ‘Oh poor you’, that’s not ‘Are you ok?’, and it’s sure as heck not a hug (pffft. As if Christina would hug). What it is instead is a character staying firmly in character—and delivering a line that gets our attention. We’re listening and our faces, like George’s, are similarly agog. Then—

‘My dad died when I was 9.’New information—every scene requires it—but, more than that, it is a deeply moving fact…yet baldly stated and without any detail. It is, essentially, completely Christina—yet we know her well enough to be aware that the fact she’s sharing anything is huge, so what this tells us is that George’s experience has affected her deeply. And George knows it too for, despite the fact that Christina is the one person who already thinks he’s weak, he nonetheless feels safe enough to deliver the next, ultra-vulnerable line:

‘I don’t know how to exist in a world where my dad doesn’t.’ BOOM! That’s a powerful weapon he’s just handed to someone who already believes he’s beneath her. Except…

‘Yeah. That never changes.’ Not only does Christina accept George’s admission without rancor or eye roll—she agrees with it and, in the space of one pivotal moment, they are at last equals at something.

Oh, and where is the tension in this scene that should be sedate? After all, it is post denouement; the climax has happened. George’s dad has already died. We should now be de-escalating back down, but instead? The tension is On. The. Ceiling.

Now that’s excellent writing. George needed something, the most unlikely character in the room delivered, and as a result his narrative (and ours) of Christina has expanded. She is more than our assumptions, and her history, have led us to believe.

So to recap the bare elements that make this scene (and our future scenes) work so well, consider:

  • A character delivering more than we thought she was capable of
  • Compassion executed in an unconventional way
  • A character taking a risk by being vulnerable before another character who does not respect him—and the result being positive, not negative
  • Two opposite characters sharing a life-changing milestone
  • That the emotion results from the content of what happens in the scene instead of from the feelings.
  • That the scene occurred in a spot in the story where we didn’t expect it—here we were post-denouement—and we’re rapt when we expect to be soothed.

I’m inspired to consider similar techniques in my fiction, such as
  • a character making love with the least-likely partner
  • a character laughing uproariously at a joke she’d normally find offensive
  • a character finding friendship in someone who’s been a real villain
  • a character being understood most thoroughly, and compassionately, by her enemy
…all while ensuring that my character-in-question remains firmly ‘in character’(in other words, no channeling my inner M Night Shyamalan and pulling a fast one) and that the technique works to drive the plot and/or characters forward, not just woven in for dramatic shock value.

Tall order. And with that, I’ll leave with one quick footnote:

Those of you who are not Shonda Rhimes fans (get a check-up from the neck up) yet still want to analyze this technique, try an entire novel based around it. Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt features a young woman who loses her beloved Uncle Finn to AIDS—and in her sorrow finds the most powerful solace, and deepest friendship, from the most unlikely person: Finn’s secret husband…and the man who infected him with HIV in the first place. My Goodreads review here.

Beyond that and, as always, thoughts and additional examples welcome. Happy watching, reading, and most of all, WRITING!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

The Cards Forecast Work

Shaynie Gavin is so much more than the sexy siren who mixes cocktails at The Python. A carpenter with a business plan, Shaynie is trying to amass enough funds to launch her own dream - Divinity, a place where up-cycled furniture from the past is sold alongside Tarot readings forecasting the future - and all in a setting that could not be more perfect: a former funeral parlor. Shaynie's belief that Divinity is attuned with the passions, the loves, and even the lies of its departed souls, allow her to feel satisfied when the cards she draws there reveal Wands, the Tarot's symbol for work. And yet...Shaynie would be so grateful if the Tarot would also, just once, illuminate a Hellnight from her past. A lost evening whose scars still slither over her skin, Hellnight haunts Shaynie. Yet when she calls the question of that chilling evening into her deck...

The Cards Forecast Love

...and love appears in the form of pro hockey star Cameron Weste. Weste is haunted by scars and superstitions of his own, and he wants Shaynie's Tarot to answer far deeper questions than she first guesses this sexy Lothario to be capable of. Who knew Weste was this intense? The Tarot, apparently. And yet...

The Cards Forecast The Devil

When Cameron Weste lands in her life, a stalker surfaces too, dropping clues to a connection between Shaynie, Cameron, and her lost, brutal Hellnight. Suddenly every card warns of deception, and nowhere feels safe. Shaynie and Cameron have to fight for their love - and their lives - as The Devil, their stalker, is determined to turn the Death Card for them both.


  1. Wow! Thank you for that powerful example. It's something I've never considered, but you have my mind spinning with the possibilities.

  2. You're so welcome! Grey's is actually full of nuances that, even in teeny little clips, are stellar writing methods.

  3. Grey's is one of my long time favorites; scenes and vivid characters like this are the reason why I've found it enduring.