Diana Black on Building Dramatic Conflict and Tension

tennis hell

The Tennis Match
by Diana Black

Humans tend to thrive on conflict; without a ‘them’, it’s harder to define an ‘us’. A tennis match or a TV drama; it’s all the same for the observer – how to win and how not to lose – Survival 101. The most memorable of battles are not the slam dunk variety. We want ‘blood’ with a ‘fight to the death’ between two equally matched rivals. We sit on the sidelines with bated breath; licking our slavering chops at the smell of victory or, succumbing to despair with the smell of defeat. No one wants to be a loser.

The classic example of a prelude to the ‘Tennis Match’ comes from Edward Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf(1962). For the illiterate among you, spend a few moments of your precious time viewing the late great Robert Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at their best and most vicious in the characters of George and Martha; the film version directed by Mike Nichols. It’s an ugly yet breath-taking example of just how nasty it can get when the gloves come off in a toxic relationship.

Martha: I looked at you tonight and you weren’t there!… I’m not gonna give a damn what I do…
George: You try and I’ll beat you at your own game.
Martha: Is that a threat, George, huh?
George: That’s a threat, Martha.
Martha: You’re gonna get it, baby.
George: Be careful, Martha. I’ll rip you to pieces.
Martha: You’re not man enough. You haven’t the guts!
George: Total war?
Martha: Total!

And then he wins, delivering a crushing defeat, albeit a necessary one in order for them to ‘move on’ psychologically; yet they love one another.

As writers – even those of us who are nice, fine-and-upstanding people – we have no choice but to put the characters through hell. The viewers, en masse, a primitive and ghastly lot, don’t want to see a quick fight. No, no, no… the characters must suffer a terrible defeat or after going through hell, be gloriously triumphant.

That means, like George and Martha, it’s ‘game on’ for young and old – quite disgusting, yet people pay big money for such a voyeuristic experience.

What of the ‘ball’ in the tennis match? For your TV Pilot to be received favorably, ‘it’ must never be dropped, not ever. The ball is the energy level you’ve maintained via the dramatic tension you’ve created (or not) with both characters ruthlessly determined to get their objective – one way or another.

You may have created dramatic tension via plot twists, oscillating the characters and the audience between hope and fear, or revealing character in a way that the viewer or gatekeeper never saw coming.

It could be as a result of the vile tactics used with no qualms, scene-by-scene, until the battle is resoundingly won; unless you have a character in self-destruct mode. Verbal manifestations of Kapow!, Zap!, Crunch! are hurled at the other; even when delivered with a gentle voice and a smile.

Neither gives a damn about the other because they can’t afford to.

They may consciously know that to win means getting ugly and some will struggle with the cruelty of their actions but they’re driven all the same till the bitter end. Or, totally incensed and on a rampage, they’re unaware of the carnage until it is too late.

It’s your choice as the writer but such had better be there or your chances of getting that TV Pilot green-lit are slim to nonexistent.

There – do you feel the tension?  (“We call it development hell.”)


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer. TVWriter™ is proud to call her a member of our Advanced Online Workshop.