Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Narrative Tension in Ender’s Game

by Bill Johnson

A hallmark of successful novels is narrative tension. Narrative tension is the tension characters in a novel (and movies) feel about unresolved and unfulfilled events and needs. When characters in a story are blocked from gaining what they want, they experience narrative tension. When acting to gain something increases a character's pain (because the story/storyteller increases the obstacles) a character in a story experiences increasing narrative tension.

In a nutshell, a storyteller creates a character who can't refuse to act because of the cost of inaction, but there's also a price to pay for acting.

Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, is a great example of narrative tension. To act on his love for Juliet is to turn against his clan and family; to not act on his feelings for Juliet is to violate his sense of what's important to him. But any action he takes increases his pain.

Romeo is a great character because he won't allow even death to block him from being with Juliet.

A novel (or movie) that lacks narrative tension fails to be compelling. It can appear to be episodic; events happen, but there's no tension around an outcome to these events. Characters act, but there's no tension generated around their actions.

The novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, and the movie based on the book offers examples of a successful use of narrative tension and a failure to generate that tension.

The novel opens with a character named Ender deep in a state of narrative tension. He’s a third, in a society that ostracizes a third child, and he’s also just lost his status of wearing a monitor and being studied as a boy to be trained to help defeat an expected alien invasion.

Since Ender fears his brother is a homicidal sociopath, he’s now in deep fear for his life, and that fear is transferred to the audience.

He’s in a state of narrative tension.

The early movie scenes that introduce Ender, Peter, and his compassionate sister Valentine convey tension, but not narrative tension.

In school, Ender faces an attack from a bully now that he's no longer monitored. Ender defends himself with that he doesn’t understand is lethal force to forestall any future attacks.

That logic gets him back into training by the military, where the military officer works to isolate and increase the tension on Ender.

At every step, his situation, his narrative tension, is made worse.

But in the movie, these scenes of struggle are introduced and resolved so quickly, they fail to generate the tension generated by the novel.

In the novel, there’s great tension as a game the military creates for Ender to play to gauge his inner mental state becomes something much deeper and mysterious than the military understands. In the movie, this is reduced to a few scenes.

As a movie, Ender’s Game reminds me of the first Harry Potter novel and movie. The novel is a chronicle of narrative tension; the movie is a kind of coffee-table edition of highlights from the book.

Understanding why the movie Ender's Game failed to find a large audience is a good lesson for understanding narrative tension.

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